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Hacking Planet Earth: Lasers, Giant Parasols And More

MARK BRODIE: Lots of us try to do things to help the planet, from turning off the lights when we leave a room to putting recyclables in the blue bin rather than the trash. But some scientists are working on solutions to climate change on a much bigger level. Ideas range from shooting lasers into clouds to giant parasols to the synthetic trees that capture CO2 from the air that we've told you about here on The Show. Thomas Kostigen writes about these and many more in his new book, "Hacking Planet Earth: How Geoengineering Can Help Us Reimagine the Future." I spoke with him recently and asked how he first came across some of these ideas.

THOMAS KOSTIGEN: The thing that really awoke me to some of these possibilities in the geoengineering space was, it was the first chapter in the book, to be quite honest, which is laser modification of weather. And so when you just hear that headline as a journalist, you go, "Huh? What's that?" And so, you, I began to investigate how can we modify our weather, and then how have we done it in the past? And what are these lasers? And when you get into some of the modification there, it brought me to climate intervention technologies and possibilities across the board. So I started to investigate other things in the solar engineering space, carbon engineering space, and then, of course, ocean engineering as well.

BRODIE: How realistic or how far along are some of these options? Like just looking at the descriptions, some of it seems kind of more science fiction that than science fact.

KOSTIGEN: Yeah, you know, and just like the, the device that I'm holding in my hand today where I can email and text and order food and grab a car, I would have thought would be science fiction, you know, 30 years ago, right? But we have to start thinking this way in terms of innovation and technology and advancements. And some of these technologies, sure, they're way out there and they're meant to be theoretical. They're what scientists do in their labs and do computer models on, much like the space parasol. But there are others that are more practical and let's call it more, quote unquote, "analog versions" of this, which also involve solar engineering — for example, just painting surfaces on a lighter color. So you have it across the board, whether we're talking about solar engineering from a very practical and to the way far out there, radical approaches to carbon engineering, which could be regenerative agriculture — that's another form of kind of engineering the Earth to hold carbon into it — to artificial trees that can capture carbon out of the atmosphere, and that's actually being done today.

BRODIE: Do you see these solutions as instead of things like trying to drive less and, you know, use mass transit, and that kind of thing, or do you see these in, as in addition to?

KOSTIGEN: In addition to. You know, we've been on the preventative side, the mitigation side for decades now — turning off the lights when we leave a room or turning down the thermostat or stopping our cars from idling, all, you know, relying on public transportation more, as you just suggested. You know, all of those things are great mitigation things. But as we're finding in the public health side today, we can wash our hands, we can keep social distancing, but we want vaccines. We want treatments in the public health side. In the similar way, we need vaccines for the planet. We need treatments for the planet that can, you know, be those Z-Paks that we turn to when things get really bad.

BRODIE: Are there certain places that seem to be doing this better where the research is maybe a little bit more advanced than others?

KOSTIGEN: It's really all over the world. I mean, universities are looking at this en masse. You have places like Arizona State University, the Innovation Center there that's created the, you know, out of that has come the artificial tree. And then you have government agencies in China. There's 37,000 employees of the weather modification agency there. To places in Europe that are exploring those lasers I discussed that can manipulate cloud compositions, to South America where they're looking at subterranean possibilities for moving our resources around more efficiently, such as water. So, you know, you have it really all around the world, people are looking at different ways specific to their situation to really leverage technology and then leverage that relationship with the earth, taking, you know, for example, all of the solar energy that ends up in the Sahara Desert and turning that into something that's useful.

BRODIE: How quickly do we need to get some of these going? I mean, you write about how we can't just be looking at some of the mitigation. We need to be doing some of these other engineered solutions as well. Like, what's the timeline that we need to be looking at?

KOSTIGEN: The timeline we need to be looking at for these mitigation as well as solutions, technologies is now. And that's kind of the point here. We've been doing the mitigation practices for decades, but unless we reduce our carbon emissions by nearly 50% over the next decade, less than a decade, then we're not going to get there. And all sorts of calamity will come from that, according to the science, and we have to start to believe in that. So less than a decade is kind of the timeframe before we have baked in global temperature rise that will result in all sorts of effects that we're starting to see, you know, in different places now, but not in scale as it might be in the future.

BRODIE: Is it safe to say that some of these engineered ideas are maybe more controversial than others?

KOSTIGEN: Absolutely. When you start looking at, you know, weather modification, people freak out. And if you look at stratospheric aerosol injection, which basically would manipulate the composition of clouds to make them brighter, you know, that could have a pass along effect that will affect certain places. Because when you start to affect the composition of clouds, it can create droughts in certain areas or it can create floods in other areas. And that is something we have to monitor. We have to do this in computer model form. We have to test. We need oversight. So there's a lot that goes into it, and we don't have that much time to get our act together and make sure that we have these planet vaccines at the ready when the climate threat really arrives at our front doors.

BRODIE: Thomas Kostigen is author of the book, "Hacking Planet Earth: How Geoengineering Can Help Us Reimagine the Future."

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.