Ironing Out the Carbon Crisis

This month’s San Francisco magazine runs my small contribution to the debate over geoengineering. Despite the complicated name, geoengineering is at bottom a simple idea: it attempts to right our climate wrongs not by cutting carbon emissions but by manipulating the earth’s atmosphere via technological fixes. Long a favorite of green-hating rightwingers who didn’t want to modify their lifestyles, the field has edged into the mainstream as it’s become increasingly clear that the world isn’t likely to change its carbon-heavy ways anytime soon (witness the squabbling in Copenhagen). Researchers have proposed a welter of different approaches, ranging from the merely implausible-sounding (planting farmland with carbon-sucking minerals) to the downright Strangeloveian (launching fleets of tiny mirrors into space to block solar rays).

I write about a San Francisco startup, Climos, that wants to seed the Southern Ocean with iron, which is supposed to help pull carbon from the air. There’s plenty of promise, but the questions are legion. A few of them: Can it work? Is it safe? And even if we can cut carbon by messing with the atmosphere, should we? After all, messing with the atmosphere is how we got into this situation in the first place. As you’ll see in the piece, though, it seems worth trying to me. And as the years pass without any real global emissions cuts, geoengineering’s appeal is only likely to grow.

“You never want to be a company that succeeds because things are going terribly,” Dan Whaley says of his South Park startup’s apocalypse-ready product. “But here we are.” Whaley’s company, Climos, is peddling an idea that is elegantly simple in its outline, fiendishly complex in its details, and, at least at first blush, batshit crazy: It aims to fight global warming by seeding the ocean with iron.