The Atlantic’s “Weekly Planet” seems positively over the moon that “Big Tech is pouring nearly $1 billion into carbon removal”. (That’s the email teaser; the story headline is “We’ve Never Seen a Carbon-Removal Plan Like This Before: Companies including Google and Facebook are pouring more than $900 million into a nascent technology that’s essential to zeroing out emissions.”) And what more could a progressive outfit ask than for capitalists to change the weather? But what if it works? What if, for a mere $1 billion, Google, Facebook and other heroes of the modern age, including Twitter unless that awful Elon Musk snatches it away from Saudi princes and other censorious types, actually manage to get atmospheric carbon back down to 280 ppm? The alarmists won’t be happy because the scheme didn’t require everyone to give up fossil fuels. But neither will the plants because it did require them to give up a lot of plant food. And if CO2 really does control the climate thermostat who among us will be happy turning down the temperature that far?
Of course there’s something fishy about the whole notion of carbon sequestration. It seems extremely arrogant to say hey guys, let’s fix the atmosphere. Or at least it does to people acquainted with the world of practical difficulties involving physical objects rather than the soothing virtue-signaling that thinks giving something a new name transforms it. For instance “decentre”. Or indeed “deplatform”. But such considerations mostly amount to “Let the silly billionaires fritter away their money trying to grab a gas and stuff it into sacks underground.” What if the result is worse than when they started? What if, against all odds, they make it work? That scenario is extremely worrying to those acquainted with the actual result of most grandiose schemes to transform human existence by the concerted actions of an enlightened elite.
Science fiction is, or was, replete with “grey goo” doomsday scenarios in which some clever invention turned out to propagate more successfully than the inventors realized could happen and turned the entire biosphere into sludge. Or froze it, with Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ice 9”. And so while various possibilities involving xenobots should be causing more concern than they are, we want to focus here on the scary possibility that some method for sequestering carbon might be found that against all odds is practical on a large scale.
It might not work. For instance lowering CO2 might kill off a lot of plants that rot and release it again. But what if it does?
Then there are two possibilities. First, we finally get finely calibrated control of the globe and make it the way it “should” be according to our infinite if unexamined wisdom. We at CDN have asked elsewhere, and ask again, how anyone actually knows what the ideal temperature really is. Why prefer the Victorian period to the late Roman Republic, for instance? (In terms of warmth, we mean; we assume modern people would prefer Rome in cultural and moral terms.) But having asked, we shoosh ourselves.
For purposes of argument we take for granted that we know the temperature today “should” be what it was in 1883 or perhaps “pre-industrial” 1730. Not 1200 or 3500 BC. No. It’s the Maunder Minimum for us. And we take for granted also that CO2 really drives temperature. So Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page do some clever technical thing we don’t understand and down goes the CO2 and the thermometer.
Guess what? Unless something is very wrong with our understanding of biology, we see a rapid reversal of the global greening of the last 50 years. If the IPCC is wrong about CO2 and temperature, it stays warm and if they’re right about it, it gets cooler. But either way, because of the vital role of CO2 as plant food, a sharp reduction in levels means a massive die-off of vegetation in the less fertile parts of Africa and Asia and also of the animals and people dependent on them. And then if the barometer goes down as well, the weather gets a lot worse too, with flooding, storms and so on. And we either go well, the place was overpopulated anyway or we go “Oops” and turn it back up.
If we can. Because the other scenario is that the process triggers tipping points in the wrong direction, that we manage to get carbon levels falling then cannot halt the process when we get to the “right” level. Remember, in the boringly named Last Glacial Maximum atmospheric CO2 was down to just 180 ppm, only 30 ppm above the mass extinction of all C3 photosynthesis plants including most crops and, shucks, all trees. So in boldly rushing back to 280 ppm we’re getting a bit close to the wind. What if a sudden gust comes along?
Then again, when humans seek to alter the conditions of their own existence in a massive bold lurch into the unknown, those ignorant of history are liable to shrug and ask what could possibly go wrong.