What about geoengineering?

With reports repeatedly highlighting the growing urgency for the world to act on climate change, it’s come to my attention that discussions everywhere seem to be devoid of geoengineering.  While this is somewhat surprising—we tend to be a society that treats issues like climate change symptomatically, and geoengineering would be our attempt to do just that—it is not terribly shocking.   Bringing such a controversial and potentially dangerous topic to center stage would raise widespread awareness of just how hazardous geoengineering projects may be, and just how easy it would be for rogue players to put parts of the world at risk through one experiment.  Additionally, it sheds some light on just how bleak our climate change mitigation prospects really are.  Broaching the topic of geoengineering would essentially be a call for the quick development of international laws and regulation and a prompt for early investigation into these climate management techniques that may be necessary sometime down the road.

What is Geoengineering?

Geoengineering is a term applied to anthropogenic actions taken to purposefully alter the Earth’s climate, typically in an effort to mitigate global warming.   Generally speaking, there are two types of geoengineering: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM).  Each of these techniques may be embody various acts—for example, dumping large stores of iron ore into the ocean to prompt plankton bloom growth is one example of CDR.  Another example is to directly capture CO2 from the air and store it underground.  Solar Radiation Management, on the other hand, includes acts such as cloud seeding and upper atmospheric aerosol injection (both of which would help reflect solar radiation away from the planet).

Geoengineering-related technologies remain in their infancy—particularly those related to more sophisticated forms of CDR.  Aerosol injection is possible now, but it poses more risk than simply removing from the atmosphere the carbon dioxide we put there in the first place.  We just don’t have the comprehensive understanding of global climate systems necessary to fully know how they will react to geoengineering.  While a collaborative, aggressive international effort at reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately would clearly be the ideal approach to climate change, such agreements are passed slowly, commitments are shirked, and realistically, there simply is not enough time for us to wean our way off fossil fuels before the warming potential of the planet reaches catastrophic levels.  Some argue that a strong movement toward nuclear power would allow us to meet power demands and dodge the geoengineering bullet.  That, however, seems very unlikely, especially in the wake of Fukushima and its aftermath (cite articles on nuclear plants closing and Fukushima).   If you add in NIMBY-ism and the painfully slow process for new nuclear plant construction (at least in the United States), you see a particularly unwieldy barrier to the nuclear revolution.

Why is it controversial?

Geoengineering is a hazardous endeavor, for a number of reasons, and as a result the issue is quite controversial.  Many dismiss it outright because they see the risks it brings as simply too high, or they view the notion of human interference as offensively anthropocentric.  Others view it as a whimsical idea that holds no true potential for change.  As renowned environmental activist Bill McKibben has said, “Geoengineering to me looks like a serious dead end. We just have idea if they’ll work and the early modelling [sic] shows they’d be disastrous. I used to run a homeless shelter so I knew a lot of junkies. This is just the kind of answer that junkies provide.”  Or, put another way, geoengineering “reeks of human hubris and technocratic arrogance. Just talking about it seems, at best, a distraction from the urgent business at hand, which is developing the political will to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.”  Clearly, many view the notion of controlling nature as preposterous and way out of our place—and, not to mention something that should be pushed aside for now as we focus our efforts on a climate change resolution that does not require human re-engineering of the atmosphere.

However, many argue that just avoiding the issue is dangerous.  Without geoengineering governance, the floor is open for individual actors to carry out their own projects—many of which could have unforeseen and unwanted consequences for different areas of the world.  Two professors at UCLA and Harvard, Edward Parson and David Ketih, argue that we need “coordinated international governance of research, ” which “will both provide the guidance and confidence to allow needed, low-risk research to proceed and address legitimate public concerns about irresponsible interventions or a thoughtless slide into deployment.”  This, of course, means not only talking about geoengineering in a political context, but also investing in the research necessary to understand how exactly this realm should be regulated.  And, as mentioned, turning international, collaborative efforts toward this matter would be a shift in focus away from managing the real issue at hand—our current (and growing) level of greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s next?

Currently, there is some research being done here in the United States to more deeply examine the risks and benefits associated with geoengineering projects.  The CIA, NOAA, NAS, and NASA have all put money toward geoengineering exploration.  However, some R&D is not enough—the development of regulatory framework must tail these efforts, as past experiments may be carried out again—potentially on a larger, more dangerous scale—without it.  It will be interesting to see how the topic grows or shrinks in importance in the years to come.

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