I like to attend science lectures. You can find lots of them in most major cities. They're cheap entertainment and you gain a more realistic understanding of the world we live in.
About a year ago, I was listening to another one about climate change. There are more and more of these simply because that seems to be the problem that is going to do us all in. You used to see lectures about nuclear technology. That problem doesn't seem as critical anymore in comparison. The people who understand this - the scientists - are getting more and more frantic because the people who don't understand - politicians and media types - are not paying attention. One definition of the difference between an optomist and a pessimist is that optomists don't understand the gravity of the situation. The Gary Trudeau "Doonesbury" quote today illustrates the point perfectly:
"This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level. The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about."
-- Jonathan Overpeck, UAz professor of geoscience and atmospheric science
"We're having some hot weather. Get over it."
-- George Will
As I listened to yet another scientist patiently explain why we're all doomed, a conjecture formed in my mind. One that I had not actually heard anyone mention before.
Most people who pay any attention at all are familiar with the type of solar power generation that depends on reflectors concentrating the sun's rays on a collector that creates super heated fluid that is used to drive generators. Because solar radiation is free and precise alignment of reflectors is expensive, most of the solar energy misses the target and simply goes back out into space.
"Gee!!" (Thought I) "All of that solar energy that goes back out into space is solar energy that doesn't get trapped in the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming. I wonder if it would be possible to build enough reflectors to actually impact global warming overall."
I raised my hand and asked the scientist who was delivering the lecture. I got a response that is very typical of real scientists. When asked about something where they don't know the answer, they refuse to answer and often change the subject. Real scientists hate to say anything that isn't, well, "scientifically correct"!
Recently (After asking four times!) I finally got our resident "real scientist" here on the Vine, "Physicist-retired", to hazard a few opinions about it. (By the way ... have you noticed that Physicist-retired is one of the very few here with a "Vineacity" icon that is completely filled out? That makes him the Vine equivalent of a five star general.)
1 - Yes, it could impact global warming if there were enough of them.
2 - That's not the only problem with global warming. The carbon production is also causing environmental havoc in other ways, such as the acidification of the oceans. That's impacting our food supply. Stopping our catastrophic carbon production remains the right way to attack the problem.
3 - The "Law of Unintended Consequences" applies here. To quote Physicist-retired from one of his past articles, "Human engineering on a grand scale, deliberately altering our atmosphere with unforeseen (and unforeseeable) consequences, would be bad policy, based on bad science. We simply aren't very good at this sort of thing."
All very good points. But I remain unconvinced. Scientists are great people and I love them! (I was planning to be one myself before I was seduced by the dark side: Making a living.) But they too have their blind spots. That's why the first astronauts were test pilots with strong science backgrounds, not scientists with strong pilot backgrounds. Only test pilots were foolhardy enough to do something with such low odds of success.
My main question was whether it could possibly impact overall global warming. Physicist-retired was fairly clear about that one. The answer is yes. But there would have to be a LOT of them. As to his second point, anything that replaces carbon-based energy production is a good thing. This would replace carbon-based energy production. And, certainly, we're not making much progress getting the rich and greedy to stop any other way.
Another point is that solar reflectors are reversable. In this article, Physicist-retired noted that people are getting desperate enough to try a different kind of geoengineering: pumping massive quantities of sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere. That is not reversable. If we're wrong about something like that ... well ... too bad. Game over.
One of the main reasons I like this idea is that it appeals to my sense of how people are motivated. All we would have to do to start covering the landscape with solar reflector based power production would be to make it possible for people to get rich doing it. The human species, in general, excels at finding ways to make the few obscenely rich. We could do that by taxing the dingleberries out of any other means of power production and providing tax incentives to solar reflector based power production. And the United States could do it alone. It wouldn't (immediately) stop the rest of the world, but the United States could show the rest of the world the way. We haven't been able to do that for quite a while.
Of course, the people getting obscenely rich from carbon based power production now would put up a Hell of a fight. They are now. But as things get worse and worse, the tide will move against them. At some point, they'll drown in it. (With rising sea levels, maybe quite literally. A lot of them own expensive estates on the ocean.) The thing to do is to get started with an alternative now.
But the final point is the clincher for me. What's the alternative? Physicist-retired provided this link to a really scary vision of the future: David Roberts - Climate Change is Simple.
What we're doing now sure as hell ain't working.