President Sunbeam

CAN YOU SAY “smoke and mirrors”? Instead of accepting mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions, the Bush administration now proposes to combat global warming through the deployment of giant mirrors that reflect sunlight back into outer space.

For most of the last six years, President Bush has resolutely implied that if you’re feeling hot around the collar, it must be because his administration annoys you, because it sure can’t be global warming. But he now seems to have changed his mind.

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is scheduled to release a new report on climate change today, and media reports suggest that the administration has decided not to challenge the panel’s main findings.

Those findings are scary. The panel -- made up of 2,500 scientists from 130 countries -- estimated in its draft report that global temperatures will rise by 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial levels during this century, melting glaciers and Arctic ice and raising sea levels around the world. Kiss your beach house goodbye!

And don’t go blaming the cows this time. The panel’s draft report concluded that there’s at least a 90% likelihood that global warming is caused by human activity. Yeah, you with the Hummer, get used to weird weather. Expect droughts, life-threatening floods and monsoons; hurricanes that will become increasingly severe; possible plagues of frogs and locusts. You never know.


You may recall that this administration has dedicated substantial resources to muzzling scientists who dare to use phrases such as “global warming.” On Tuesday, the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee considered the findings of a survey of several hundred government scientists undertaken by two independent monitoring groups; the respondents reported 435 cases of political interference with their work.

So it’s significant that the Bush administration has decided not to fight the IPCC’s substantive scientific conclusions, though Washington’s response to the draft does churlishly complain about its “focus on the negative effects of climate change.” Back in the day, the administration wouldn’t have stopped there. Vice President Dick Cheney would have wasted no time designating all 2,500 IPCC scientists as enemy combatants and shipping them off to Guantanamo.

What caused the policy shift? November’s GOP electoral drubbing? Increasing anxiety within the corporate community about the economic impact of climate change? Growing alarm within the military and intelligence communities about the national security impact of global warming?

Whatever the cause, the shift is good news.

But don’t get too excited because there’s bad news too. The administration’s grudging admission that maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this global warming stuff doesn’t mean it is actually going to back a mandatory cap on carbon emissions, which most experts say would be needed to seriously reduce global warming.

Instead, the administration has its own cunning plan to combat global warming. As the president suggested in his State of the Union message, we’ll try to shift to alternative energy sources that produce fewer carbon emissions. But if that doesn’t work, we’ll turn to our secret weapon: We’ll reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the Earth by shining giant mirrors back at the sun.

The administration is reportedly lobbying the U.N. panel to include in its report criticisms of the mandatory emissions caps imposed by the Kyoto Protocol (which the White House still hates). And the administration wants to add language noting that space mirrors and other techniques for “modifying solar radiance” could provide “insurance” against global warming. Keep the emissions, deploy the tin foil hats!

The idea is not completely bananas. Some scientists are researching alternative global climate control methods, ranging from the deployment of lots of shiny balloons to the giant space mirrors apparently now favored by the administration. The logic: Just as nomads in the scalding desert wear white robes to reflect the sun’s heat away from them, the whole Earth could essentially don a reflective garment to keep from getting too hot. If the mirrors could be constantly adjusted, it would be like having a global thermostat.

But as the IPCC’s draft report noted, these technologies are “speculative, uncosted and with potential unknown side-effects.” You don’t have to be a sci-fi buff to imagine some of those: more space crud, bad stuff happening elsewhere in the galaxy when we start beaming more light up or, creepiest of all, deliberate climate change induced in some regions as a method of political control. (Imagine Cheney controlling the world’s thermostat!)

As the globe heats up, we’ll need all the help we can get. So, despite the risks, I’m all for research into giant space mirrors -- as long as we understand that research into speculative future technologies is no substitute for setting mandatory emissions caps today.

For the time being, put a mirror on the roof of that Hummer. It’s the least you can do.