The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World

By Oliver Morton (Princeton University Press, 2015) ISBN 978-0-691-14825-0 (hardcover) $27

It’s complicated; when you do something here, it affects there. Earth is a small place, fragile in some respects and robust in others. The Planet Remade is a mixture of history, science and their connections. Sometimes it reads as science fiction but with the emphasis on science with unknown effects. As the author states often, the models that predict changes in the “Earth-system” are “far from perfect”.

Oliver Morton is a briefings editor at The Economist and has published several books on big ideas, geoengineering being another big and wide ranging topic. The book is in three parts; Energies, Substances and Possibilities along with an introduction. Morton’s thesis is that "to reduce the risk of damage due to climate change means that geoengineering should be taken considerably more seriously than it has been over the past few decades.” The purpose of his book is to “spread the tools with which to imagine a re-engineered Earth-system a little more broadly.”

The introduction is an aside, but it will help those that have not read about climate change and sets the stage for upcoming topics. His basic need for writing the chapter is to get everyone on board that first, yes the risk of climate change needs action and second, yes it would be very difficult to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions to near zero. This sets up the need for geoengineering as a solution to the risks of climate change.

Part One: Energies starts with the stratosphere, its history and science. In these chapters we start to get an idea that climate science is a very complicated endeavor. Here we learn about the power of volcanoes to change the weather and the climate by putting sulphur into the stratosphere. Volcanoes allow us to study large scale effects of changing the albedo for large portions of the Earth. We encounter our first geoengineering of the climate in veilmaking — decreasing the amount of sunshine coming into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Part Two: Substances introduces us to a global example of geoengineering; nitrogen used as fertilizer to feed the increasing world population. The middle chapters deal with carbon, past, present and future. Morton makes it clear that “putting that carbon back where humans found it, or in some other safe store, is both ideologically more acceptable and politically more plausible than messing around with the incoming sunshine” but this carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) geoengineering is very difficult to do. He spends some time on CCS looking at the dynamics of the give and take in the oceans and on land, they are connected and it’s complicated.

Part two ends with the geoengineering of cloud brightening starting with the fascinating example of cloud-seeding for rain, which turned out not to give the results we dreamed about. These chapters and a lot of the book had small vignettes of stories of scientists at work. In this chapter it was interesting to find out that a scientist (Armand Neukermans) was an excellent match for work in cloud brightening with particles because he was involved with developing Hewlett Packard’s ink-jet printers; “thus having experience with little droplets.”

Part Three: Possibilities begins with a chapter entitled “The Ends of the World.” This chapter includes the development of nuclear weapons and the discovery that an asteroid could wipe out life on Earth. Morton compares and contrasts this with the possible doom and gloom of climate change and how we have reacted to the different possible outcomes of all three. Morton ends with a scenario of how things could happen if we don’t have a plan. The scenario he lays out would make a nice science fiction novella — he mentions several science fiction stories throughout the book.

If it was not clear to the reader yet, Morton makes it clear in his ending pages that he is in favor of engineering the planet. You can tell he enjoyed writing this last part of the book as a what-if scenario. In short we need to pay attention. The science is complex and interesting, but the politics also matters. We all have an interest in the future of our planet and who will be making the decisions.

Dr. Jeff Williams
Physics Department, Bridgewater State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.