In 1978, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 31/72, banning the use of environmental modification techniques for the purposes of war. Despite the fact that this ban does not extend to peaceful uses, there has remained a level of stigma attached to the concept of geoengineering because of it’s Pandora’s box of associated ethical, environmental and political implications. Until recently, it seems.
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote an article last weekend lamenting the lack of investigation in the US into geoengineering solutions to climate change.
The ideas range from simple to sci-fi. To remove carbon from the atmosphere, we could bury wood and agricultural waste, or burn them into biochar. We could “weather” soil by mixing in carbon-devouring minerals, or make oceans more alkaline by adding lime. Chemical solutions could capture carbon dioxide from the air; “fertilizing” the ocean with nitrogen or iron could promote carbon-consuming algae; or high-carbon water from the ocean surface could be pumped to the depths…Sun reflectors could be put into orbit, or a ring of dust, like Saturn’s, could be built around the equator using satellites. Metallic “sunshades” could be placed between the Earth and sun, or, as Britain’s Royal Society described it, 10 trillion refracting disks could be “launched into space in stacks of a million, one stack every minute for about 30 years.”
She caps off her humanity-as-gods-of-the-earth reverie with a disturbing clincher, a small paragraph that light-heartedly dismisses the ethics and dangers of intervening in the earth’s natural processes as a product of unfinished research.
Some of these ideas could bring unwanted side effects, including catastrophic droughts, famine and the destruction of ocean life — all the more reason to spend time and money on researching the alternatives before we reach a tipping point that requires us to try one.
A look at Google news today reveals a strange amount of attention to this topic of late… along curiously uncritical lines. Most articles seem to express the same sense as Milbank, that fertilization of our oceans, scattering solar mirrors around space and provoking volcanoes into eruption are all activities that we may find ethically uncomfortable but will inevitably be driven to undertake in order to ‘save the climate’. The Bill Gates foundation already invests in geoengineering research, the neo-cons at the New America Foundation have described it as ‘The Horrifying Idea Whose Time Has Come’ (strangely enough they endorse geoengineering, even though they deny the existence of climate change), and the US and Britain have established a bipartisan task force to investigate it as a potential solution.
Has the world gone mad? Or, should I say, are the significant number of mad people in the world getting louder? It seems as though the political impasse manifest in the failure of Cop15 has waved a red flag at those advocates of geoengineering who have waited patiently in the shadows for their time. The line being towed is that if we can’t rely on the politicians to come together, and both people and industry selfishly refuse to reduce emissions.. the only answer is to hire a team of mad scientists and supervillains to deflect the sun’s rays using giant cosmic mirrors blasted into orbit. Mwah ha ha ha! Sequestering carbon and maintaining biodiversity by simply not cutting down so many trees doesn’t quite have the same sex appeal (and, lets face it, wouldn’t involve a lucrative contract for anyone really).
See this excellent Youtube clip for a perfect illustration of that approach.
Aside from the environmental consequences of massive intervention in environmental conditions that we will then be unable to control…
Enthusiasm for geoengineering solutions to climate change is growing…While such actions [as the use of atmospheric aerosols] theoretically could reduce temperatures globally, they would do nothing to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations or ocean acidification, and would require an artificial and potentially unstable tradeoff to be maintained between increased greenhouse gas concentrations and reduced solar radiation over centuries. Some aerosols also have the potential to acidify precipitation and increase ozone depletion, while all have potentially substantial impacts on regional climates through modification of precipitation patterns. Thus, whilst stratospheric aerosols might mitigate global warming, they also might have negative effects on different components of biological diversity. (TREE Horizon Scan, 2010) [and that’s just aerosols]…
There is the troubling political scenario in which the developed countries would most likely demand a monopoly over environmental manipulation….
Unfortunately the debate about initiating such research is probably minor compared to the debate that would ensue if and when serious discussion began on deploying climate-cooling measures. Look at how tough it’s been to agree on blunting an (originally) unintended alteration of climate. Imagine the debate over who gets to set the thermostat. (Andrew Revkin)
And, of course, there is the underlying ethical issue that geoengineering lets everyone off the hook; no need to reduce carbon emissions, re-evaluate our relationship to nature or restructure our economic system to one that involves less consumption when you can just throw iron in the sea.
Pursuing abatement is an admission that industrial society has harmed nature, while engineering the Earth’s climate would be confirmation of our mastery over it — final proof that, whatever minor errors made on the way, human ingenuity and faith in our own abilities will always triumph. Geoengineering promises to turn failure into triumph. (Clive Hamilton)
Finally, there is that pesky climate change trump card again.. finite fossil fuel resources. Even if we were to use some of these bizarre technologies, we’d eventually have to transition to renewable energy anyway. This would mean we’d essentially be duplicating efforts with no long term benefit and potentially disastrous consequences.
At the UN Convention on Biological Diversity currently underway, delegates are considering further limitations on geoengineering, this time by restricting solar mirrors. They are approaching large scale geoengineering projects with caution, apparently unconvinced by the hype. According to John Holdren, Science Adviser to the Obama Administration, they are right to be cautious. He has dismissed claims that the administration are seriously investigating the use of geoengineering, stating that “The ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.“
Hopefully any further discussion on geoengineering will take into consideration a few important lessons from history. As we’ve learned from the disastrous environmental consequences of industrialisation, once you start playing God with nature.. it’s very hard to turn back.