Zeus or Congress: Who's Doing More to Cool Global Warming?

Mar 10, 2011· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.
A farmer looks at plants in a coffee plantation on a farm near Pereira, Colombia. (Photo: Reuters)

The New York Times has reported a decline in Colombian coffee production due to higher temperatures and increased rainfall. The coffee story is another “canary in the coal mine” warning for anyone who thoughtfully considers the impacts of global warming on the planet, its people and the economy.

A fast-growing human population demands more wheat, corn and other commodities essential to modern living … everything. Yet as a changing climate impacts agriculture around the world—average temperatures in Colombia’s coffee regions have risen one degree in 30 years, recorded rainfall is up 25 percent—supplies are shrinking and prices rising.

“Half a degree can make a big difference for coffee,” Nestor Riano, a specialist in agroclimatology for Cenicafe tells the Times. “If temperature rises even a bit, the growth is affected, and the plagues and disease rise.”

Half a degree can make a big difference. Remember that statistic next time the climate skeptics in your life complain about the high-price of a venti latte.

Plenty of folks still believe there is no evidence of global warming. But the coffee fields of Colombia are just one morsel.

Temperatures across Canada last year were the hottest on record, 11 degrees warmer than normal. The rise could bring longer growing seasons, but with far less water to nurture them (thanks to reductions in snow and ice melt). Climate-induced flooding, heat waves and droughts have farmers around the world experimenting with massive heat lamps and something called T-FACE (temperature free-air controlled enhancement), a growing apparatus that raises the temperature of experimental crops in open fields, currently being tried out in Australia, China, Mexico and Colorado.

Is the U.S. Congress planning for a changing atmospheric future? On Friday, March 11, the House Subcommittee on Energy Power and the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy will hold a joint hearing on “FY 2012 EPA Budget.” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson is the lone witness. The GOP-led House, of course, is pushing to bar the agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The GOP house, in fact, would like to eliminate the agency entirely.

We are asking EPA for a time out,” says Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI). “We don’t need these regulatory schemes to come into place during these very tough economic times.”

When exactly would be an appropriate time?

Maybe Congressman Upton has been reading Scientific American, which has published a lengthy ponder piece on the future of geoengineering—“deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment”—as a way to rid the atmosphere of heat-trapping gases. The notion of filling the air with the artificial aftermath of a volcanic eruption or seeding the oceans with iron in order to promote plankton growth may appease those skeptics who doubt statistics from climate scientists.

But such global tinkering, according to James Fleming, author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, has proved iffy in the past. Fleming concludes that messing with Mother Nature is “more dangerous than climate change. ” If man did control the climate, who would decide “whether a day was to be sunny, rainy, overcast … or enriched by a stimulating blizzard.” What if the controls were administered by someone with an investment in umbrellas, or sun block—or genetically modified grain technology?

Geoengineering, or what some call terraformation, is not new. In the 1830s it was proposed that the Appalachian Mountains be set afire every Sunday night as a way to generate updrafts to stimulate rain and clear smog from East Coast cities.

According to Fleming, it was Phaeton, the son of Helios, the Greek god of the sun, who lost control of the sun chariot, putting the Earth in danger of burning up. Phaeton was killed—and earth saved—by a thunderbolt from Zeus.

Maybe that’s what Congressmen Upton and his colleagues are waiting for to slow a warming planet—thunderbolts from Greek gods, hurled in order to “fix the sky.”

jon_bowermasterA six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.