Preface: My entire purpose for writing this essay is to urge that decision-makers do what is best for our planet and not do something which will cause more harm than good. Environmentalists should check my background below before dismissing this out of hand.
When I pointed out a couple of days ago that a group of scientists and much of the popular press warned in the 1970s of an imminent ice age, I didn’t realize they had such a prominent member.
Specifically, as New York Times science columnist John Tierney noted in September:
In 1971, long before Dr. Holdren came President Obama’s science adviser, in an essay [titled] “Overpopulation and the Potential for Ecocide,” Dr. Holdren and his co-author, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich, warned of a coming ice age.
They certainly weren’t the only scientists in the 1970s to warn of a coming ice age, but I can’t think of any others who were so creative in their catastrophizing. Although they noted that the greenhouse effect from rising emissions of carbon dioxide emissions could cause future warming of the planet, they concluded from the mid-century cooling trend that the consequences of human activities (like industrial soot, dust from farms, jet exhaust, urbanization and deforestation) were more likely to first cause an ice age. Dr. Holdren and Dr. Ehrlich wrote:
The effects of a new ice age on agriculture and the supportability of large human populations scarcely need elaboration here. Even more dramatic results are possible, however; for instance, a sudden outward slumping in the Antarctic ice cap, induced by added weight, could generate a tidal wave of proportions unprecedented in recorded history.
Shooting Soot into the Upper Atmosphere
And when I wrote that some scientists considered pouring soot over the Arctic in the 1970s to help melt the ice – to prevent an ice age – I didn’t realize that soot was still on the table as a way to battle climate change.
Specifically, Dr. Holdren has suggested (as a last resort):
Shooting pollution particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun’s rays.
The most common type of man-made “pollution particle” is soot. Indeed, as the American Lung Association points out:
Soot is an old name for particle pollution.
So President Obama’s science advisor, Dr. Holdren, is now saying that we might need to use soot to stop runway global warming. (Soot in the upper atmosphere can reflect sunlight and cool temperatures, but soot on the surface of ice helps warm and melt the ice by absorbing sunlight).
What’s Wrong with That?
What’s wrong with that?
And as NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has shown, soot in the upper atmosphere ends up on the surface of ice sheets and glaciers, such as Arctic ice cap:
South Asia is estimated to have the largest industrial soot emissions in the world, and the meteorology in that region readily sweeps pollution into the upper atmosphere where it is easily transported to the North Pole.
I don’t know whether Dr. Holdren was one of the scientists recommending using soot to melt the ice cap in the 1970s, but the fact that he would even consider shooting soot into the upper atmosphere now to cool the planet is very troubling.
If scientists had convinced policy-makers to pour soot over the Arctic ice cap in the 1970s, we might have had real problems. If scientists convince them to shoot soot into the upper atmosphere now, we might get the exact same end-game.
First, Do No Harm
I have previously pointed out numerous decisions regarding the environment which have caused more harm than good, such as the government forcing a switch from one type of chemical to a chemical which turned out to be 4,470 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Here’s another one. The mongoose was introduced to Hawaii in order to control the rats (which were eating the sugar cane used to make rum). It didn’t work out very well – mongeese are daylight-loving creatures while rats are nocturnal – and the mongeese trashed the native species in Hawaii.
My whole point is that we should make sure that our actions do not cause more harm than good.
Note 1: I have an extensive background working to preserve natural areas and reduce urban pollution. Indeed, my environmental resumé is as good as just about anyone’s. I studied environmental science at a top university in the early 1980’s.
Note 2: I not only do not receive a penny from oil or any other energy, industry or political person or organization of any nature whatsoever (I make a few peanuts from ads on this site, which I do not choose, but are selected without my input by my ad service), I am also wholly and completely against big oil, big coal and big nuclear. As I have repeatedly argued, power should be taken away from the oil giants and decentralized. I have repeatedly argued for microgeneration and for alternative energy. These things are beneficial for a number of reasons – including better health, less corruption of our political systems through decentralization of power, and a boost to our economy – in addition to the environmental benefits they may have.