Pandora's Toolbox: STC Review

We’ve delayed so long that dangerous climate change is now inevitable. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is laudable, but insufficient to prevent what’s coming. To mitigate those consequences, we must contemplate the scary topic of climate intervention (“geoengineering”). Why scary? Because the research is incomplete and getting the solutions wrong may have disastrous consequences. But as Wake Smith notes in Pandora’s Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention, geoengineering “sounds like a terrible concept until you...realize that not geoengineering would likely prove worse” (p. xviii).Pandora’s Toolbox is a remarkable technical communication achievement: Smith explains a dauntingly intimidating topic with clarity and grace, and never overwhelms. Some scientific knowledge and understanding of graphs will enrich the text, but you won’t need more than grade school math to understand his argument. Chapters 1–4 thoroughly describe our situation. His analogies, such as describing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) as an increasingly thick blanket that traps ever more heat, are clear and helpful. Chapter 5 describes climate economics and the danger of relying on traditional economics. Thee book’s meat comes in chapters 6–7, which discuss mitigation (reducing future pain); chapter 8, which discusses adaptation (coping with pain); and chapters 10–15, which discuss geoengineering (further reducing future pain). Broadly speaking, we must both remove CO2 from the atmosphere and reduce the solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface. No one solution will solve the problem in coming decades: we’ll need to combine them all to undo the effects of more than 100 years of cumulative damage. Forty pages of references support this argument. A book of this scope inevitably has omissions, such as noting (p. 69) that high temperatures improve plant growth but not that high CO2 may divert most of that improvement into inedible tissues rather than food or that dryland rice will reduce methane emission from rice paddies (p. 107). Also, we’ve only just begun to realize the danger of methane release from hydroelectric reservoirs and permafrost. The index should also be twice as long. None of this undermines the book’s fundamental message. The bad news is that the “real work of achieving net zero and then negative emissions will require substantial economic sacrifice by virtually every current and future human for many generations” (p. xvi). Smith emphasizes that technology notwithstanding, human problems require human solutions: decades of failed climate accords demonstrate the need for fundamentally refocusing on the collective good. “There is a chance that this may not work out as badly as some alarmist observers think—but we are still sailing off the edge of the map” (p. 78). It’s increasingly obvious that we face a crash landing; the good news is that it’s our choice how hard we hit and who will walk away from the crash. Pandora’s Toolbox is an essential work for providing the information we need to understand the risks we face and invest wisely in solutions.