Thinking the unthinkable

2 min read

Saving the world from climate change (and swine flu)

An organisation called the Science Media Centre runs a helpful service for journalists who want to find information on highly technical issues that are outside their normal sphere of expertise.

Not surprisingly, over the last week it has been fielding a good number of enquiries on subjects relating to flu, vaccines, antidotes, epidemics and infection detection and control.

One of the less technical — but undeniably most relevant — questions posed to the experts went as follows: ’Are we all going to die?’

Fortunately for us all, the answer that came back was ’no’ — if only on the basis that swine flu needs at least a few of us around to act as hosts and ensure its own continued survival.

Somehow all this seems grimly in tune with the generally apocalyptic feeling to the last few years of the 2000s. Whatever else it may do, swine flu has distracted attention briefly from economic meltdown, global terror and last but not least climate change, which many believe is a threat to planetary survival that puts a flu pandemic, however serious, firmly in the shade.

The ’worst-case scenario’ is firmly on the minds of the engineers highlighted in this issue’s cover feature. They are at the leading edge of geoengineering — a discipline that seeks to influence the behaviour of the planet itself and drag the world back from (as some would have it) an otherwise unstoppable spiral of destructive climate change.

In an age when engineers are often urged to recapture the ambition of their Victorian predecessors, nobody can accuse this particular research community of thinking small. Giant sunshades that deflect light away from Earth, artificial trees, and ships billowing artificial cloud cover into the atmosphere are among the radical solutions under consideration if we pass the point at which no amount of government-subsidised electric cars will make any difference.

Some of the projects are, on the face of it, so bizarre, the outcomes so ambitious and the sums of money needed to enact them so huge that the initial impulse is to regard them as fascinating theoretical challenges but ones firmly for the realms of fantasy.

The extent of climate change itself remains a contested area, and even some of those who are deeply concerned about its impact are worried that such initiatives are a distraction from what should be the main priority — getting carbon emissions down.

Alongside these caveats, however, our feature notes that the geoengineers are now at least getting a respectful hearing and count some serious engineers and technologists among their ranks.

Somehow, their work seems very much in keeping with that spirit of the age. And if nothing else, they demonstrate that engineers are as capable as virologists, economists and politicians of thinking the unthinkable.

Andrew Lee, Editor