Climate Control

The Earth’s temperature rises. The assignment of blame, one of Man’s most tenderly cherished hobbies, naturally ensues. The usual whipping boys — Western civilization generally, and capitalist America in particular — are piously flagellated by the guardians of “the planet” for the misfortunes we have inflicted upon innocent humankind, such as industry and transportation.

It does indeed seem that there is something happening that we should be concerned about. The evidence is clear enough. Is the answer, though, going to be the wholesale dismantling, as some would have it, of the technological infrastructure that undergirds our advancing civilization? Should we rip up the roadways, outlaw the automobile, and spend our declining years reading Baudrillard by candlelight? Of course not. Doomsayers ever since Malthus have prophesied the collapse of our species, and they have always made the same error, which is to underestimate Man’s technical ingenuity. The answer to the very real problem of global warming is not going to be the abandonment of our technology, but its improvement. It is a matter of engineering.

In my Left ear I faintly detect, even as I sit quietly typing this yet-unpublished post, a howling chorus of opprobrium directed at “Big Oil”, the Bush administration, and the unholy alliance therebetween. Such criticism is not unwarranted: certainly we ought to be exploring, with the economy of scale that our immense government apparatus makes available, ideas for powering our buildings and vehicles in such a way as to reduce the flow of carbon into the atmosphere — and the present administration’s pursuit of this agenda has been desultory, to say the least. Our unslakeable thirst for oil, also, continues to enrich, with one hand, many of very the same foes we are fighting with the other. The likelihood of a greatly invigorated pursuit of “alternative” energy technology, involving actual funding for research, and political pressure upon the oil interests to join the effort, is in my opinion one of the happier aspects of the recent election results.

But why stop there? The discussion so far all has to do with ways of controlling the Earth’s response to the influx of solar radiation. But why not also attack the problem at its very root, by learning to control how much of that energy reaches us in the first place? This is a notion that is spreading among forward-leaning engineers, and some practical ideas are beginning to take form. One of the more promising concepts involves making use of the stable Lagrange point known as L1 to build an orbiting parasol.

Lagrange points are like depressions in the gravitational landscape, points of gravitational equilibrium in the neighborhood of an orbiting planet where objects will tend to stay put. The Lagrange point L1 lies on a line from Earth to Sun, at a distance of just under a million miles. An idea put forward by Dr. Roger Angel of the University of Arizona proposes that we send trillions of small reflectors, solar-powered in order to allow us to control their movement and orientation, to the L1 point, where they would serve as a configurable screen, allowing us to regulate the heating of the Earth by the Sun — and perhaps do a few other things besides, such as to reflect energy toward Mars as part of a “terraforming” project for our chilly neighbor.

It’s a fascinating idea. Learn more here.

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