A popular argument for supporting climate change legislation is that the risk of doing nothing is too high. According to Greg Craven, a high school science teacher who produced the wildly popular "The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See,” the global climate is a non-linear system “capable of sudden, unexpected lurches set off by seemingly small bumps.”
So Craven asks: What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t do something about global warming right away? Answer: A worldwide economic, political, social, environmental, and health catastrophe.
OK, I’ll bite. I agree the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of acting unnecessarily.
Now, in the same spirit of open mindedness, I’d like to ask climate change activists to consider an alternative solution. According to conventional climate change thinking, the proper response is to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions; convert to cleaner cars; and encourage citizens to rely more on mass transportation, bicycles, and walking.
I propose, instead, that we use biotechnology to reabsorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to Freeman Dyson, the United States alone could accumulate enough CO2 absorbing topsoil to more than compensate for the growth of CO2 emissions (which is largely due to the burning of coal by China). This approach has several major advantages over conventional proposals.
The conventional proposals bet the future of the planet on our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough. But what if we can’t? It may be easier to scale up the biotechnology to compensate for CO2 emissions than to scale down industry.
The conventional proposals rely on compliance by all major industrial countries. There will probably be some cheating. China may not even go along. If we use biotech to compensate for CO2 emissions, then it may not matter who cheats or doesn't go along.
The conventional proposals risk a reversal in worldwide development. After all, that may be the price of reducing CO2 emissions. A decline in living standards is possible, and that could lead to food shortages, disease epidemics, and other problems.
The conventional proposals put the main burden on developed countries. Given that most of the world sees economics as a zero-sum game, the real motivation may be redistribution of wealth. Using biotech to compensate for CO2 emissions subverts demands to redistribute wealth. (In fact, if the U.S. undertakes the bulk of the effort, then we should demand reimbursement from the United Nations.)
The conventional proposals call for switching from proven fossil fuels to unproven "green" technologies. For example, we don’t even know the cost (whether in dollars or environmental impact) of converting tens of millions of automobiles from gasoline to electric batteries. Using biotech to compensate for CO2 emissions delays the need to switch to alternative energy sources.
The conventional proposals call for research in a set of favored technologies, but ignore other routes to the same destination. For example, why not pour research funds into making nuclear energy production and waste disposal safer and developing new ways to scrub automobile exhaust? If that works, then we should invest in developing more cost-effective ways of extracting oil from shale.
In contrast, the development of biotechnology to compensate for greenhouse gasses could empower us to better control our environment over the long-haul. We could dial up when we need more compensation and dial down when we need less. By keeping existing pollution controls in place, we might be able to compensate for any increase in greenhouse gasses without further damping industrial activity.
Biotechnology is already delivering benefits in other areas and promises much more. Developing biotechnology for absorbing CO2 will surely lead to other discoveries and inventions. We may even learn along the way how to use biotech to produce clean fuel.
If we really need to act on climate change, then it would be much wiser to focus on proactive solutions like growing more topsoil than reactive solutions like scaling down industrial activity and switching back to more primitive sources of energy such as wind.
UPDATE December 21, 2009:
Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft, has proposed another alternative that may not require downsizing industry and marching backwards. (Though his company presents it as a "backup plan" in case reducing emissions doesn't work fast enough.) Myhrvold's scheme is to pump sulfur particles into the stratosphere, increasing the percentage of sulfur particles by just 1%. Doing so would reduce the amount of the sun's heat that reaches the ground and lower atmosphere. Because volcanoes do the same thing naturally, we know that it's safe.