Geoengineering is probably the greatest example of scientific hubris I can think of. Period.
Several weeks ago, a story I wrote on geoengineering was published in The Observer and News & Observer. It was more of a perspective piece than a “here’s what’s new” story; and it was an attempt to introduce general readers to the basic concept and see what our area NC scientists think about it. Before writing it, I’d heard of geoengineering but I’d never looked deeply into it. And now I can say without a qualm I think it’s a dastardly idea.
Geoengineering is the process of engineering solutions to slow or halt global climate change caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Some ideas mimic the known cooling effects of massive volcanic eruptions by injecting aerosols into the atmosphere. Others focus on removing carbon from the atmosphere though industrial-scaled sequestration. Critics say that geoengineering proposals detract from efforts to reduce carbon dioxide-emitting activities, and that costs, benefits and potential harm all need to be assessed before trying it. Supporters say it may be the best way to quickly alter climatic effects caused by the upward global trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions. CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 391.06 parts per million this March, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Pre-Industrial Age levels were about 280 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels have stayed higher than 350 ppm, considered an upper atmospheric safe point, for the past 22 years.
For the most part, geoengineering our way out of climate change remains a largely theoretical endeavor. Most schemes are aimed at either shading the earth to prevent solar radiation from entering the atmosphere, or sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere; and both categories fail to get at the crux of the problem — emissions. In my opinion (and the opinion of others), this creates a moral hazard because it basically offers this big, clunky way to “fix” our climate problem, while doing zilch to get at the root cause of the climate problem. And because it would be so difficult to test, we can’t even be sure that geoengineering would truly “fix” anything. As one of the sources I interviewed pointed out (Jose Rial, a geophysicist at UNC Chapel Hill), carbon sequestration is probably the most logical thing to go after, but it is so complex that Al Gore has offered millions of dollars to whoever can figure it out.
Engineering the atmosphere is not an entirely new idea, Cold War-era scientists sunk decades into trying to control weather. But engineering earth’s climate has enjoyed resurgence in scientific, political and commercial circles in the past several years as debates heat up over how to manage projected global warming. It may have originated as a fringe idea, but it’s burrowed into mainstream discourse followed by a wake of international debate. Which means we’re going to have to deal with this issue.
Alan Robock, a professor of environmental sciences at Rutgers University, has cautioned that unintended consequences of geoengineering must be closely examined. He wrote an article titled “20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea” that was published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Failed schemes or those stopped in mid-stride due to lack of political will or funding might cause large temperature spikes, according to Robock. He also wrote that injecting aerosols into the atmosphere (which deflects photons back out to space and creates solar shading), could produce white skies. Yes, say goodbye to those Carolina blue skies because a side effect of sulfate seeding is that the sky would appear bleached. I can’t imagine what the pychological affect would be to not seeing blue skies. Robock also points out that as long as we’re talking about only mitigating the effects of a CO2 enriched world, without really altering the rates of CO2 enrichment, then the oceans will continue to acidify at alarming rates.
Other challenges to engineering climate change include questions about international governance, regulation, who should pay for it and who should control atmospheric manipulation. For that, check out this great report from PRI.
When I was interviewing people, perhaps the best summary of the concept of geoengineering was offered by Jose Rial at UNC. “The worst part is that this gives people false hope that we can solve this problem without really sacrificing anything, without changing our habits or devising intelligent policies,” he said.