Sunset over Lower Hutt

Humans have been modifying their habitat for hundreds of thousands of years. House-building began at least four hundred thousand years ago, and people learned to control fire more than a quarter of a million years ago. Habitat engineering has gradually evolved. Today there’s a lot more to it than houses and home heating. We have structural engineers building bridges and skyscrapers, civil engineers building flood-banks and tunnels, marine engineers building seawalls, fire engineers building alarm and evacuation systems: The list goes on and on. A roof over our heads is essential for human survival. We owe our existence to technology.

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The seas are rising and global temperatures are warming up. Now, we can add climate engineering to the list of activities covered by habitat engineering. The international community in 2015 agreed to partially stabilise the earth’s average surface temperature. The 2015 Paris Climate Accord calls for, “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases…”. The Paris Climate Accord requires engineers to control the earth’s climate by managing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere. It is interesting that engineering schools have not yet started advertising climate engineering as a career option for young engineering graduates.

Over the next few weeks, Techogeny will publish a series of posts about the basic principles of terrestrial climate engineering. I will focus on tools and techniques that have been modelled by scientists. However, it is important to recognise the massive difference between science and engineering. Scientists study things. Engineering is the act of designing, building, modifying, or doing something. Climate scientists are trying to create a detailed mathematical model of the earth’s climate, which they claim will allow them to predict its behaviour. They’ve been working on this project for well over a century. There is no reason to think they will fail. Equally, there is no reason to think they will succeed. The science is complex and incomplete. The latest understanding is periodically summarised in reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Engineers have never been able to wait for complete scientific understanding of problems and potential solutions. A growing segment of the public is demanding climate stabilisation. Climate engineers are in exactly the same position as the first bridge builders. People wanted to cross a river without getting wet or swept away. Engineers couldn’t wait for the invention of beam theory. Back then, if you fancied yourself as a bridge engineer, you would choose a tree that looked strong enough, and then you would lead a team of labourers, cutting the tree down in such a way that it fell across the river. If people could safely walk across your fallen tree and enjoy the experience, you would get to call yourself a bridge engineer.

With climate engineering, engineers have a widely agreed strategy to get them started. The Paris Climate Accord encourages manipulating the atmospheric content of naturally occurring greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. However, the Paris Climate Accord does not fully address consumer demand.

People worry that the earth’s climate is moving away from the conditions that prevailed throughout human history. They fear that temperature and sea level changes could seriously damage our economy and global ecosystems. Some folk think this is a threat to our way of life, or even to the existence of our species. Climate engineers have good options for addressing sea level rise and fully stabilising global average temperature. However, working toward sea level and temperature stability requires climate engineers to go well beyond the scope of the Paris Climate Accord.

Public discussion suggests people think climate stability will deliver the widest benefits to the most people. I agree. I think that climate stability and pollution reduction facilitate economic growth. We don’t make ourselves richer by making ourselves unhealthy or wrecking our habitat.

Engineers did not wait for a complete understanding of the earth’s physical structure before bridging canyons and harbours and tunneling through mountains. We know enough to get stuck in to engineering the earth’s climate. It’s time to get started.

We are technorg.