Is Geoengineering the Solution to Climate Change?

Photo courtesy of the Creative Commons.

With the rising frequency of extreme weather events, the continual increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and Trump’s repeal of over 80 federal environmental regulations despite the US being the world’s second highest GHG emitter, it’s becoming increasingly clear that climate change is inevitable. Now, it’s no longer a question of how we can stop it but rather, how we can mitigate the worst of its effects.

As a result, some scientists are delving into climate geoengineering. An umbrella term for any deliberate large-scale manipulation of natural systems to combat climate change, geoengineering is divided into two main types: carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management (SRM). The former refers to reducing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to reduce its ability to trap heat, while the latter involves reflecting sunlight away from Earth so that less heat can enter the atmosphere in the first place. Drawing inspiration from historic volcanic eruptions that released reflective particulates into the stratosphere, consequently decreasing global temperatures in ensuing years, SRM is currently the more popular and well-researched of the two.

However, that is not to say that geoengineering is without its drawbacks. For one thing, SRM is, at best, a temporary fix, since any particulate released into the atmosphere would gradually fall and therefore require regular replenishment. Furthermore, it only addresses a symptom of climate change, not the cause. Carbon dioxide removal, while more capable of attacking the root of the problem and generating long-lasting effects, is significantly more expensive, slower to produce results, and unlikely to be applicable on a global scale with modern technology. Overall, because geoengineering in general has never been executed on a planetary scale, its widespread use poses many unknowns and could thus cause inadvertent changes that would be difficult to reverse.

Setting up such a structure would therefore require an extraordinary amount of authority and multilateral agreement, the likes of which the world has never seen.

“You wouldn’t really know whether or how it’s working…” says Anna-Maria Hubert, an international environmental law expert. “It would definitely be a leap of faith – no matter how much small-scale research you did in advance.”

As well, effective geoengineering would require a global governance structure that could take decades to create. Because it aims to tackle an issue that transcends national boundaries, geoengineering could cause geopolitical disputes regarding collective consent to enact global natural system manipulation and the legitimacy for any state or organization to unilaterally do so. Setting up such a structure would therefore require an extraordinary amount of authority and multilateral agreement, the likes of which the world has never seen.

‘It would definitely be a leap of faith – no matter how much small-scale research you did in advance.’

Given all these issues, you might be wondering: why should we pursue geoengineering at all? To put it simply, we’re running out of options. Geoengineering has been an idea for quite some time now, but its recent popularity came as a result of scientists’ increasing panic in reaction to the speed and intensity of climate change’s effects.

“I don’t think people understand just what we’re up against with climate,” says Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment. “The most likely scenarios for climate over longer time scales are devastating to future generations, absolutely devastating.”

At the very least, geoengineering could buy us some time while we continue trying to lower our GHG emissions and pursue other combative measures.

For this reason, Schrag believes that it could be more dangerous not to employ geoengineering and therefore ignore its potential to save the hundreds of thousands of lives that will be lost to climate change’s effects. At the very least, geoengineering could buy us some time while we continue trying to lower our GHG emissions and pursue other combative measures.

As such, more and more scientists are conducting research on its methodology and application. And while small-scale experiments and computer simulations are hardly comparable to real-life large-scale applications, the promising results observed cannot be ignored. According to a recent paper from University College London, a myriad of simulations employing SRM demonstrated geoengineering as consistently having a moderating effect on climate change across almost the entire planet when applied in controlled doses.

Furthermore, the use of one method does not have to exclude the use of others. Ideally, scientists hope to combine various methods of geoengineering while still pushing societies and corporations to lower their GHG emissions. Other methods that have been developed include increasing reflective cloud cover, thinning heat-trapping clouds, and dumping iron into oceans to promote phytoplankton growth.

So no, climate geoengineering is not the solution to climate change. However, combined with other efforts, it could be part of one. Though it entails a host of ethical concerns, unpredictable side-effects, and global governance issues, our window of opportunity is becoming smaller and smaller as emissions continue to rise. Frankly, we’re running out of options, and we’re running out of time.

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