Why Are We Still Talking About Geoengineering?

Sun blocked by vapor trailsIn our short-term, quick-fix, credit-swiping culture we have no shortage of proposed non-solutions that search for short cuts to stem the possibility of irrevocable damage caused by climate change. Noteworthy participants are the well-known faces of clean coal, carbon sequestration or launching waste into space. But when it comes to handing out the gold star for the top of the class, geoengineering stands head and shoulders above the rest as a scientific Hail Mary Pass with an endless sea of unknown consequences. After a dubious amount of review from a number of different sources, geoengineering and all funding towards its research should be pulled off the table with focus returned to things that can actually work without multitudes of latent risk.

The New York Times reported that the Government Accountability Office released a report stating that no geoengineering scheme could be responsibly deployed today, given the uncertainties. This is good, sensible news. However, the agency also recommended opening research avenues to further explore and test geoengineering practices in an attempt to limit the field of unknowns. According to the G.A.O., the majority of experts, and the public no less, were in favor of pursuing further geoengineering research. I find this difficult to believe as I have to wonder how much of the public is even familiar with the term.

Geoengineering? Explain.

Geoengineering is a relatively new study of directly manipulating Earth’s climate in the effort to counter the changes humanity has made to it with our laissez-faire attitude of habitation to date. If enacted it would be perhaps the most direct and deliberate attempt at trying to alter the function of the biosphere in order to accomplish a desired outcome.

There are two front-running schemes for using the globe as our communal chemistry set. The first involves the spraying of sulfates into the upper atmosphere in order to mimic a volcanic eruption with the goal being that the tiny particulates will help bounce the sun’s light back into space. As Cornelia Dean notes in her article a year ago, to be effective this process would need to be done indefinitely. Other experiments focus on flooding the sea with iron in order to boost levels of carbon-consuming plankton and algae, in a bid to remove more CO2 from the air.

The real question, or should I say worry, is not whether these methods will accomplish what they hope to accomplish, but what other vast series of repercussions come from trying to manufacture the climate of the entire globe. Dean aptly describes this as “the unknown unknowns, things we won’t even know we need to worry about until it is too late.”

In an atmosphere infused with sulfates, how will the decreased sunlight affect plant growth for things that we still want to grow like our food supply or rain forests? What is the result of all of these sulfates eventually falling back to the earth or their possible effect on cloud formation and rainfall? If we do ignite the plankton population so too we give strength the species that feed on plankton. Will altering the key components of ocean food webs as a whole (comprising 25% of the estimated 8.7 million species on the planet) have effects on the parts we need to harvest?

–Well we don’t really know. Details! What is important is that we really want it to work and if it does succeed think of all of the time and effort we will save by not having to actually try and change our excessive, wasteful way of life.

Theories Best Kept as Theories

In the Times article, after a description of Geo-engineering reporter Justin Gillis followed with, “The idea sounds like science fiction, but it is not.” Perhaps what he should have said is, “The idea sounds like science fiction and that is where it should stay.”

I have never personally met a serious advocate of sustainability that also supports geoengineering. I have to attribute this to the fact that geoengineering has nothing to do with sustainability at all—in fact it is the epitome of a techno climate quick-fix meant to circumvent any material change to how we interact with the planet and its resources. Perpetually mitigating the earth’s climate is not something we can sustain indefinitely.

My biggest beef with the concept is that it embraces the heavy-handed and misguided mentality that nature is a force to be guided and that we have finally arrived at a level of near-omniscient perspective to have decoded the earth’s systems, leaving us in the fortunate position to be able to slip behind the wheel and steer the climate in a better direction. This is only a few steps (but an important few steps) away from trying to put monetary prices on natural ecosystems.

Opponents Are Not Rare

There have been no shortage of sizable bodies that have steered away from the nonsense that is geoengineering. At the Convention on Biodiversity in late 2010, the United Nations passed a resolution that sealed a moratorium on geoengineering measures until the effects of their utilization could be better proven through research. Specifically:

“Climate-related geoengineering activities [should not] take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts.”

For the countries in the world that take U.N. resolutions seriously, this was a great step in the right direction. As with so many seemingly global initiatives, the U.S. is conveniently not included in this moratorium given that it is not a member of the Convention of Biodiversity (why would we want to be part of something so petty and insignificant as the ecological diversity of our planet? After all we have a recession to worry about).

Perhaps the most frustrating irony surrounding this issue is that the majority of geoengineering proponents are conservatives and libertarians–those notorious for being least concerned with climate change to begin with–and ultimately backing the preparation for the worst possible result. The bottom line is that if there is enough chance for consequences dire enough to justify trying to prepare a “panic button” for the environment then it only underscores how much more we should be doing to circumvent such an outcome by providing stronger sustainability policy and programs now. Why prepare for mitigating the cataclysmic scenario whilst simultaneously not doing anything to seriously avoid it?

Image Credit: Flickr: fu.*