Dumping iron: probably not a cool idea

Did you notice that President Obama didn’t say the words “climate change” or global warming” in his 7,000-word State of the Union speech? He described government support for clean energy as

an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people

Partly this is repackaging, and not in a good way.  Partly it’s a recognition that we’re utterly failing, here in the U.S. and globally, to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. (See the chart at the end of this blogpost.) That’s not something the president wants people to think about. It’s actually not something that anyone wants to think about–not environmentalists, because it leads to a sense of hopelessness, not free-market ideologues, because it’s a glaring example of market failure, not the press because, well, climate change has become an old and depressing story,.

But ignoring the threat of climate catastrophe won’t make it disappear.

So, sooner or later, as people come to see the threat, scientific and political attention will turn to geoengineering—deliberate intervention in the climate system to moderate global warming. By coincidence, on the day after the president spoke, scientists at UNESCO published a guide to one of the early approaches to geoengineering, a technique known as ocean fertilization or iron fertilization. The idea here is that  sprinkling iron dust atop the oceans will stimulate plant growth and suck large quantities of carbon dioxide out of the air.

Ocean fertilization has been bruited about for decades. “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age,” a scientist named John Martin said back in the 1980s. The technique attracted some notoriety more recently when a couple of U.S-based startup companies, Climos and Planktos, were created to explore the idea. (I wrote about Climos for Fortune.com in 2008.)

Unfortunately for advocates of ocean fertilization, UNESCO’s 20-page report delivers mostly discouraging news. [click to continue…]