Thursday, June 21, 2007

Global Climate Control

Everyone's got it wrong on climate change. One side is convinced it's being caused primarily by people, and the other thinks its not. All the political thunder about anthropogenic climate change driven by CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere obscures what is, in fact, a greater threat still: the Sun. Ultimately, the vast majority of the Earth's energy comes from the Sun, and the Sun is not a constant source. Modulated by various cycles with periods ranging from decades to millenia, the amount of Solar energy rises and falls and with it goes the temperature of the Earth. If Sun's magnetic field intensifies, cosmic rays are blocked, cloud formation is inhibited, and the Earth warms. If the field weakens, the cosmic rays come through, clouds form to block the Sunlight, and the Earth begins to freeze.

Climate can change drastically, in short periods of time: from dense jungles in the Sahara to baking deserts, or from a tropical England to one under a mile of ice, in a hundred years. Changes too fast to have anything to do with CO2, at least before humans came along (though the initial die-off in plant-life, while the biosphere adjusts to the new climate regime, likely causes some fluctuations in global concentrations.) Human activities may well contribute to climate change, but historically it has been the Sun, and at the present moment we are unlikely to overpower it's influence. Especially not as an accidental byproduct of daily existence.

Now, I've been muttering about solar forcing of climate change to friends and family for months. Most of them have seen Gore's movie, of course, and get extremely indignant if CO2's dominance (and humanity's culpability) are questioned, for it has become for the vast majority a moral issue far more than a scientific one. Large multitudes, ashamed perhaps at their affluence, seem to almost want to believe that civilization is the villain on the global stage of climate change, ignoring that we are but the most recent character to step onto that stage, in the midst of a drama of billions of years, and - as if that were not enough - also mere ants, creeping about the toes of giants.

Make no mistake. The Sun is the villain of this piece. Thus it has always been. And our panic, as we sense the Earth growing briefly warmer, loudly hold ourselves to blame, and then imagine that we'll fry our dear planet like an egg and rush about to try and stop it? A mere comedic interlude, while the actor changes clothes offstage, prior to coming back and decimating us with the precise opposite of what we'd expected.

In 2020, the Sun's cycles are set to descend to lowest level of magnetic activity of the past 200 years. Back, in other words, to those of the little ice age. A global cold snap, which could be far more damaging than global warming, decimating crops and rendering large parts of the inhabited world at the very least rather uncomfortable.

Over the long run, the Sun is far more dangerous to civilization than carbon dioxide. Were the climate to descend back into a real ice age - an event that can happen with little warning - civilization, if it survived at all, would do so in a severely truncated form. If civilization is to survive into the Long Now, it must find a way of mitigating the Sun's influence, smoothing out the variations in temperature to ensure the Earth never becomes too cold (or, for that matter, too warm.)

It's funny. People talk to me about global warming, find out I think the anthropogenic hypothesis is a bad joke on the scientific endeavor, and assume I'm a dupe of the oil industry or the American government (sadly, no one ever takes me for a paid shill....) They think that when I object to the strain on the economy that lowering CO2 emissions would take, it's because I'm more concerned for industry than for nature. Rarely does the conversation last long enough beyond this point for me to explain that doing anything to hurt the economy, in the name of fighting climate change, is nutes, because ... the economy has to be as strong as it can get, precisely so it can fight climate change.

It's not quite as crazy as it sounds. Already, there are numerous proposals aimed at geoengineering. They range from the simple and cheap (plant lots of trees, seed plankton blooms), to the more ambitious (giant sulfate clouds above Antarctica) to the epic (a vast sunshade orbiting between the Earth and the Sun). Most, admittedly, are motivated out of a belief in anthropogenic forcing, but they are none the less useful for that. While the primary cause of climate change may well be the variations in solar magnetism and cosmic rays, the proximate cause is rate of cloud formation, and this is something our civilization can get a handle on, albeit at enormous cost.

The goal, however, should not be merely stopping climate change. It should be controlling it. Bringing water and shade to regions that currently have only sand and heat; bringing warmth to regions that are currently frozen. Humanity might be the instrument that finally greens the planet over its whole surface, from pole to equator.

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