The List

Hacking the Climate

7 far-out geoengineering ideas that could save the planet -- or destroy it trying.

With rising sea levels threatening to swallow coastal cities and bizarre weather patterns disrupting the global food supply, geoengineering -- or deliberate, large-scale intervention to reverse the effects of global warming -- looks like a much-needed lifeboat for humanity. But tinkering with the climate also comes with risks -- and a glance at the dubious history of climate hacking isn't all that reassuring. From the early cloud-seeding experiments of the Cold War to America's rainmaking exploits in Vietnam to China's weather manipulation efforts at the Beijing Olympics, our efforts to master Mother Earth have left much to be desired. And today's geoengineering schemes promise much steeper downsides. Herewith, then, are seven far-out geoengineering ideas that could save the planet -- or destroy it trying.


Plans for reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the planet -- a technique known as solar radiation management (SRM) -- range from injecting reflective aerosols into the atmosphere to whitening the tops of buildings in order to bounce solar radiation back into space. But perhaps the most ambitious SRM proposal, presented by physicist and former Pentagon weapons designer Lowell Wood at a roundtable convened by the White House in 2001, is to launch a giant mirror into orbit between the sun and the Earth. The mirror (or a few smaller ones), would be composed of tiny aluminum threads and span roughly 600,000 square miles -- enough to deflect approximately 1 percent of incoming solar radiation. "If they had broadcast that meeting live to people in Europe, there would have been riots," recalled one participant in the roundtable where Wood presented his idea. "Here were the bomb guys from Livermore talking about stuff that strikes most greens as being completely wrong and off-the-wall."



One idea that didn't come up at the White House roundtable, but which doesn't require a huge intellectual leap from Wood's proposal, is mining moon dust to create a different kind of space-based solar shade. Enter Curtis Struck, a professor of astronomy at Iowa State University who proposed doing exactly that in a 2007 paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. In addition to discussing the possibility of deflecting sunlight with "captured comets," Struck suggests that it might be possible to use laser vaporization to turn lunar boulders into clouds of dust that would pass in front of the sun once per month and block radiation for approximately 20 hours at a time. Lunar dust might have been the "No. 1 environmental problem on the moon" for the Apollo astronauts who had to deal with its corrosive effect on their equipment, but who knew it might prove to be the solution to the No. 1 environmental problem on Earth?


If moon dust and giant orbital space mirrors sound like impractical solutions to global warming, what about artificially beefing up cloud cover, which already reflects about a quarter of the sun's rays back into space? That's exactly what climatologist Jonathan Latham had in mind when in 1991 he proposed pumping ultrafine saltwater from the ocean into the air in order to create thicker and longer-lasting clouds. Scientists have proposed numerous so-called "marine cloud brightening" schemes since then, the most creative of which involve fleets of cloud-generating ships -- or albedo yachts -- that troll around the ocean puffing out vapor. Stephen Salter, an engineering professor at the University of Edinburgh who proposed creating a fleet of 1,500 albedo yachts, even designed a wind-powered prototype that generates enough power with underwater turbines to sustain the entire cloud-making operation.

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J. MacNeill/The Royal Society  


So far, we've only talked about schemes for reflecting sunlight back into space, thereby reducing the greenhouse effect that's caused by carbon dioxide emissions. But what about removing the carbon dioxide directly? One of the most creative proposals for doing that, laid out by Ernest Agee in a 2013 article in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, involves building giant, football field-sized freezers in the Antarctic. That's right. Agee argues that cooling the air inside these jumbo freezers to -140 degrees Celsius will cause the carbon dioxide to turn into "CO2 snow," which can then be stored deep underground. Using the energy from 16 wind farms -- "There's a lot of wind energy in the Antarctic," Agee told the New Scientist -- the Purdue University professor calculates that it would be possible to remove roughly 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. That's roughly 1/35th of the planet's total annual CO2 emissions -- though not everybody agrees with Agee's math.


Not all plans for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere involve massive infrastructure investment. In fact, one of the most hotly debated options requires only a fishing boat and a bucket of iron slurry. So-called iron fertilization, first proposed by John Gribbon in 1988, involves adding iron compounds to sea water in order to stimulate massive algae blooms. These blooms, in turn, remove CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it on the ocean floor. It sounds terrific in theory, but in practice, scientists fear that it could cause toxic tides and massive oceanic dead zones. Nonetheless, iron fertilization moved out of the realm of the hypothetical in 2012, when American entrepreneur Russ George took it upon himself to empty 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean roughly 200 nautical miles west of the Haida Gwaii islands. The stunt earned him the distinction of being the world's first geo-vigilante, but it also put him on the wrong side of a handful of international laws and U.N. resolutions. George later told the Scientific American he would do it again, given the chance: "A reasonable, intelligent, earnest and honest scientist would not plan to do it only once. That's not good science."

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F. Lamiot/Wikimedia Commons


Assuming George doesn't unilaterally counteract the greenhouse effect, there's also rising sea levels to contend with. Melting Arctic sea ice, which functions as a sort of planetary air conditioner, promises to flood coastal cities around the world -- and it's disappearing fast. Just last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that snow cover in the Arctic was a whopping 18 percent lower in 2012 than in any other year in the satellite era. Ideas for reversing this trend run the gamut from firing reflective aerosols into the Arctic stratosphere to pumping river water onto polar ice caps in order to make them thicker. One particularly ambitious proposal involves wrapping much of Greenland in giant, reflective blankets to slow the thaw. Jason Box, the Ohio State University professor who dreamed up this scheme, has already tested it with 10,000 square meters of specially designed polypropylene blankets. "It's going to be expensive, but when you consider the cost of reengineering our coastlines -- this may actually be cheaper," Box told the Telegraph. The man's got a point.


Wrapping Greenland in polypropylene is no slouch, but the award for the most drastic proposal goes to Dutch science writer Rolf Schuttenhelm, who in 2008 suggested building a 200 mile-long dam across the Bering Strait. The so-called St. Lawrence Dam, connecting Siberia and Alaska via St. Lawrence Island, would halt the northward flow of warmer and saltier water from the Pacific Ocean and thereby keep the Arctic frozen. Interestingly, Schuttenhelm's plan is the exact inverse of a Soviet scheme, laid out by an engineer named Petr Michailovich Borisov in 1960, to melt the polar ice caps and improve the Arctic's climate. Don't expect either plan to go forward anytime soon.

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Sara Francis/U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

The List

The World's Most Powerful Labor Unions

From Tunisia to South Africa, where workers still rule.

This Labor Day, America's labor leaders find themselves in an unenviable position, with union membership plummeting to a 97-year low in 2012. Greater labor mobility, the flight of manufacturing jobs from the United States, and new state laws restricting the power of unions, among other factors, have combined to make the country's labor movement a shadow of its former self. While recent actions such as coordinated strikes by fast-food workers have some analysts talking about labor staging a comeback, the numbers tell a different story.

Elsewhere in the world, however, organized labor has managed to retain at least some of its clout. Here's a tour of some of the world's most powerful -- though often embattled and controversial -- labor unions.

All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU)

Until it encountered the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, Walmart had a nearly unbroken record of killing worker unionization efforts. By 2006, however, Walmart gave in and permitted unions at all of its Chinese branches, which totaled 66 outlets (the big-box behemoth now has approximately 390 outlets in the country). With over 200 million members, the ACFTU is the world's largest labor group, and its showdown with Walmart marked a watershed moment in the Chinese government's relationship with foreign investors.

But the power of the ACFTU is in large part derived from the might of the Chinese state; it is, after all, state-controlled. As a result, the union has been dogged by allegations that it is little more than a government tool for controlling the country's sizeable working class. Rather than advocating on behalf of its workers, ACFTU often strives for harmony between workers and their employers -- a philosophy that typically leads to the squashing of workers' demands in order to maintain the business-friendly labor rules that have helped propel Chinese economic growth over the last few decades. Indeed, signs of labor discontent in China are rife. In 2010, for example, 1,700 workers at a Honda factory launched a strike for higher wages and built a labor group outside the confines of the state-sanctioned ACFTU -- a move that was not looked upon kindly by China's leaders. "The trade union is not representing our views; we want our own union that will represent us," one striking worker told the New York Times. Other instances include a 700-strong strike at an electronics factory in Shenzhen in 2012 and a rash of strikes in 2011 that hit furniture, clothing, and electronics factories. It's a movement that, China Labor Watch's Han Dongfang observed, may force ACFTU "to re?examine its role and look for ways to become an organization that really does represent workers' interests."

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Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)

When South Africa's leaders began dismantling apartheid in 1990, the Congress of South African Trade Unions emerged in a dominant position. A leading group in the anti-apartheid movement, COSATU entered into what is known as the Tripartite Alliance -- a grouping that included the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, and long maintained a stranglehold on the country's politics. South Africa's current president, Jacob Zuma, was elected in large part based on his continuing alliance with COSATU, which had grown furious at the free-market policies of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.

But COSATU has struggled to keep Zuma in its pocket, and in 2010 tensions between the president and labor groups erupted in the form of a public sector strike. Zwelinzima Vavi -- the general secretary of COSATU, who is currently suspended from his role amid a sex scandal -- denounced the Zuma government for leading South Africa "rapidly in the direction of a full-blown predator state, in which a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas increasingly controls the state as a vehicle for accumulation."

These tensions have endangered the Tripartite Alliance, but COSATU remains a force to be reckoned with in South African politics. South Africa's gold miners are going on strike this week -- an effort fully backed by COSATU that threatens a key sector of the South African economy. Mine workers are demanding a pay raise of up to 60 percent, and their decision to strike comes as many of the country's car, construction, and aviation workers have also put down their tools and joined the picket lines. In 2012, COSATU put tens of thousands of workers on the streets as part of a national strike.

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General Confederation of Labor (CGT)

Union membership in France has now dipped below 10 percent (union membership in the U.S. fell to 11.3 percent in 2012), yet French labor groups have somehow managed to retain an enormous amount of power. One reason why is the General Confederation of Labor, known by its French initials, CGT. With loose communist ties, the country's second-largest union is the radical specter on the far left of French politics that fans the flames of union discontent. Where other unions have moved to make compromises with the government, the CGT has refused, instead staging a series of spectacular, gutsy protests. Most recently, its members at the Eiffel Tower in Paris walked off the job because a malfunctioning elevator that had gone unfixed made working conditions unacceptable, according to the union.

In François Hollande, the CGT now has a Socialist president and labor ally in office. But that doesn't meant the group has been less aggressive. In October 2012 -- just five months after Hollande's election -- the CGT brought tens of thousands into the streets to protest the president's commitment to the European Union's deficit-slashing fiscal pact, an agreement that could threaten French social programs. "This is a government that was elected largely thanks to votes of workers," Pascal Debay, the head of the CGT, said in an interview at the time. "We're witnessing the destruction of jobs and the wrecking of French industry. That's why we're mobilizing. The choices the government makes in coming weeks will be followed very closely." In May, a group of French unions moved to strike deals with major companies that guaranteed plants would stay open in exchange for changes to France's famously sclerotic labor regulations, but the CGT largely refused to compromise. While reform to French labor markets may be inevitable -- just about everyone who isn't the CGT appears to be seeking changes -- the union's size and steadfast commitment to left-wing labor politics make it a powerful counterweight to both the government and other unions. Perhaps more importantly, in a country enamored with its revolutionary past, the CGT -- even amid dwindling unionization rates -- knows how to stage a protest that will win over French public opinion.

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IG Metall

Germany is often looked to as a potential model for how to restructure France's byzantine labor laws. In 2003, the country embarked on a labor reform known as Agenda 2010 that moved its labor laws in the direction of America's. The new system made it easier for employers to hire and fire employees, increased temporary jobs, and drastically cut what at the time were extremely generous unemployment benefits. These are all overhauls that France's unions would sneer at, but they haven't sidelined organized labor in Germany.

IG Metall is Germany's largest union, and the influence it wields is breathtaking. In February, with the European economy still stagnating, the metalworkers' union requested a 5.5-percent annual pay increase for its members, settling for a staggered deal that amounted to a 5.6-percent raise over 20 months. The previous year, the union asked for a 6.5-percent hike and ended up reaching a deal for just under 4 percent. But the measure of IG Metall's influence lies not so much in its ability to guarantee pay increases for its members in the midst of an economic crisis -- though that is certainly impressive. By virtue of its leading role in the constellation of German labor groups, agreements reached by IG Metall often serve as a benchmark for other industries. As a result, when IG Metall sits down at the negotiating table, it speaks not just for its own members but also for a large swath of the German workforce.

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Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)

With Tunisia embroiled in a political crisis over the future of its Islamist-controlled government, the Tunisian General Labor Union has emerged as a key power broker in the country's post-Arab Spring era. A string of assassinations of secular Tunisian politicians has provoked a public outcry against the ruling Ennahda party, which, from its seat in Tunis, has struggled to implement economic and political reforms. As the crisis has come to a head, the UGTT has mediated talks between the opposition and the government, backing a demand to dissolve the government (in mobilizing protests, the union was a key player in precipitating the crisis in the first place). The situation bears some resemblance to the conflict in Egypt between Islamist and secular groups, but in Tunisia, the UGTT -- and not the military -- serves as the critical go-between for the warring factions. Still, that's a comparison the UGTT is loathe to embrace. "Our situation is different from Egypt's and I'm not another al-Sisi," Hussein Abassi, the union's secretary general, told Reuters last month.

So far, the UGTT's plan seems to be coming up roses. Ennahda has now embraced the negotiations, though it is attempting to settle plans for the constitution and an electoral law before giving up power. That decision represents a major win for the UGTT's leaders -- after all, they were the ones who proposed the plan.

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