Fig Leaf

The Boston Globe has an interesting story this morning on some of the wackier ideas for combating global warming:

Technical fixes like filling the stratosphere with billions of silver balloons to reflect the sun’s rays, or spraying the oceans with iron to make them suck up the gases causing global warming, should be developed as a safety net, they said. Some even felt the technology should be adopted regardless of need, because it would create a better world in which we could twiddle with the planet’s temperature like a domestic thermostat.

The fear, cited by several of the scientists quoted in the story, is that providing such solutions might give politicians the excuse to not grapple with the underlying issue of greenhouse gas emissions.

The article also quotes a great line from David King, the UK’s “chief scientific advisor to H.M. Government” (I love that title). In the Jan. 9 issue of Science (here, really expensive subscription required), King uses a trick I’ve used a bunch of times – comparing the problem at hand (in this case global climate change) to the terrorist threat:

Last year, Europe experienced an unprecedented heat wave, France alone bearing around 15,000 excess or premature fatalities as a consequence. Although this was clearly an extreme event, when average temperatures are rising, extreme temperature events become more frequent and more serious. In my view, climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today–more serious even than the threat of terrorism.

King goes on at length about the threat to coastal humanity, and quotes a statistic that is apparently of great interest to Londoners:

In Britain, usage of the Thames Barrier, which protects London from flooding down the Thames Estuary, has increased from less than once a year in the 1980s to an average of more than six times a year…. This is a clear measure of increased frequency of high storm surges around North Sea coasts, combined with high flood levels in the River Thames.

If the flood barrier is breached, King wrote, the damage would be equivalent to some 2 percent of the current U.K. gross domestic product. He uses this by way of arguing that the economic costs of greenhouse gas reduction measures are reasonable relative to the cost of damage caused by global climate change.

In the Boston Globe story, King sounds the caution about those wacky alternative mitigation measures:

“I am in favor of having every weapon at our disposal to fight climate change. My only reservation is that you might provide a fig leaf for those who say we don’t have to bother to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. That still has to be the first priority.”