In any competition to determine what living person will be most influential in the next decade, J. Craig Venter, president of the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, surely is at the top of the list. After decoding the human genome, he's now on a project to genetically engineer the planet's temperature.
Technologically, this might not be so difficult, and Venter makes no bones about what he is after: a homogenerated bacterium that reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide. Increasing carbon dioxide is the likely cause for a small rise in planetary temperature in the last 50 years of about 0.4ºC. Despite the fact that the warming has consistently been far beneath the early alarmist projections, there's no other environmental issue that generates such emotional heat.
Also neglected in public discussion is that the physics of this process correctly predicts that a disproportionately large amount of this warming should take place in the coldest, driest air, such as in Siberia in the winter, and this has been observed. Further missing: The world's mid-latitudes, which is where most of our food comes from, should receive slightly more rain, and therefore produce more food. Both have been documented.
Smart money says Venter will be successful. The ramifications will be mind-boggling. First and foremost, it will provoke an honest discussion of global warming.
For years, enviro-luddites have assumed that anything we humans do to the global temperature is bad. The implication is that the earth's climate before the industrial revolution was somehow the Garden of Eden.
Hardly. Much of the northern hemisphere, if not the world, was at the depths of what climatologists call the Little Ice Age. Winters in Europe were miserable. Thomas Jefferson, who, among other things, was fascinated with the notion of climate change, wrote that the oldest citizens of his time recalled that the snow in Virginia would lie on the ground for months at a time, as opposed to the few weeks that characterized his day. Now it's more like a few days. Whether the Little Ice Age was the beginning of a natural progression to the next big ice age (which is overdue by some calculations), is an experiment that cannot be run. However, the reality is that human-produced carbon dioxide has warmed things up a bit.
Is this all so bad? I sincerely doubt that a panel of the most esteemed ecologists would argue that we should bring planetary temperature down. Perhaps the most logical temperature would be the average since the last big ice age, 11,000 years ago, about a degree warmer than today. The flowering of human civilization and its co-evolution with the earth's biota are the hallmark of the post-ice age regime. Consequently, it's a pretty good argument that the mean temperature during this period is a salubrious one.
One could hone it a bit more: The actual dawn of civilization occurred in a period climatologists used to call the "climatic optimum" (before the current era of "climatic hysteria") when the mean surface temperature was 1-2ºC warmer than today.
So where do we set the thermostat, once we realize the technological inevitability that the control is in our hands? That's going to be the real debate about global warming.
Who decides and how we decide will be one of the most delicious ironies of the modern era of environmental politics. Right now, there's a great divide between America and Europe on just about every aspect. It's about to get bigger.
Nowadays, we don't even notice that almost all of our ubiquitous soy-based food products are genetically modified, even as Europeans would claim to break out in hives just for looking at a Pria bar. We believe that the Kyoto Protocol won't do anything about global warming except cost its adherents a fortune. Europe disagrees, tilting at ugly windmills. Europe savages the Bush administration for inaction, while the president, along with Dr. Venter, recognizes that effective climate technology has yet to be developed. Euros will hate the notion of genetically modified organisms engineering our atmosphere, even as probably 60 percent of the protein that comprises the American body now comes from the same.
Perhaps the genie that is about to emerge from Craig Venter's petri dishes will finally bring the world to its senses, not only on climate change but also on the inevitability that Homo sapiens chooses and engineers the planet and genetic ecosphere that it desires. It's been happening for hundreds of years, and only the pace and the technology are accelerating.
This was predicted a long time ago, in Genesis: "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
Craig Venter is likely to provide the key to that prophecy. But determining how we fulfill it, and with what wisdom, is going to occupy an awful lot of our time in coming decades.