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Stewart Brand warms up to nukes, geoengineering

A central figure in the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Brand now thinks people need to manipulate natural systems to forestall the effects of global warming.

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.--The iconic environmentalist Stewart Brand has come around to the notion that the Earth can't solve its own problems any more.

Brand, the original publisher and editor of the "Whole Earth Catalog" in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is an ecologist and Internet pioneer who founded the online community The Well. When it comes to dealing with global warming, he thinks environmentalists need to push for things that many of them now oppose.

Stewart Brand Ryan Phelan

Specifically, he's an advocate of bio-engineered plants, nuclear power at large scale, and geoengineering, or ways to manipulate the Earth's atmosphere to forestall higher temperatures. All of these positions, which he spells out in his book "Whole Earth Discipline," are controversial among environmentalists.

"This is a dynamic that is such a 180 (degree change) that a lot of people won't make it," he said during a talk at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference here Monday. "All we are trying to do is to keep things the way they were but it requires some engineering."

The view of environmentalists historically has been to let natural systems be the guide, which will allow the Earth to restore and solve environmental problems.

But the scale of today's problems, notably climate change, is so large that even a giant industrial transition to clean-energy sources would not avoid changes already under way. Citing analysis from Saul Griffiths, he said massive scaling of solar, wind, geothermal, and efficiency over the next 15 years will not be enough to prevent an increase of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in that atmosphere, an increase that scientists predict will result in an average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius.

Nuclear power, to which he used to be "mildly opposed," is mature technology and waste problems are solveable, Brand said. It's green because there are no emissions during power plant operations, he said.

There are a number of geoengineering ideas now being researched, including shooting sulfur particles into the atmosphere, which would block some of the sun's radiation from the Earth. But many of these techniques result in other environmental changes, such as changes to precipitation patterns, and bring up complex problems of governance.

Brand's view has evolved to the point where he is "increasingly persuaded" that geoengineering will be done. These techniques will buy time for a transition to less-polluting sources of energy, Brand said. "Basically, it's a full-court press."