Andreas Späth

Can we geoengineer our way out of trouble?

2013-10-14 13:12

The age of geoengineering - using technology on a planetary scale to fix our climate change dilemma - is coming. Or so we are led to believe by a growing number of voices that suggest that hacking the climate is our only remaining option in the fight to keep global warming and its consequences under control.

In the wake of the latest depressing report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) , geoengineering pundits are once again presenting blueprints for a wide variety of schemes to manipulate global weather patterns. These include, among many others:

    Ocean “fertilisation”

    A recent study [http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/1/014009/pdf/1748-    9326_8_1_014009.pdf] suggests that grinding up three billion tonnes of the     mineral olivine and sprinkling it all over the world’s oceans would make the     water more alkaline, allowing it to absorb more CO2 from the air. How much     CO2? Just 10% of all human carbon emissions. That seems rather a little     considering the immense mining activities involved, not to mention the fleet of     100 large ships that would have to operate year-round to accomplish the task,     which would consume considerable amounts of energy and create substantial     greenhouse gas emissions itself.

    Others have experimented with     [http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v487/n7407/full/nature11229.html]     dumping large quantities of iron powder into the sea to trigger CO2-trapping     plankton blooms, or lime, which would react with dissolved CO2 to create     carbonate deposits on the seafloor. Exactly what impact sprinkling tonnes     such fairy dust all over the oceans would have on marine life is unknown.

    A more reflective atmosphere

    A British project referred to as SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for     Climate Engineering) proposes to mimic the cooling effect of large volcanic     eruptions by piping reflective chemicals such as sulphur dioxide into the upper     atmosphere in the hope that this would shield us from some of the incoming     sunlight. Similar schemes would have ships equipped with huge chimney     stacks spray salty seawater into clouds to make them more reflective to solar     radiation.

    Space mirrors and parasols

    Put into orbit between the earth and the sun, these are meant to offer some     planetary shade to counter rising temperatures.

    Stirring the oceans

    This would aim to raise cool bottom water with a larger capacity to absorb     CO2 than warmer surface water.

    Artificial trees

    These would be “planted” to sequester CO2 directly out of the atmosphere.     Millions of large chemical “sponges” could be built to do the same.

   
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of geoengineering. While it addresses the symptoms of our climate problem, it leaves the causes untouched by looking for ways to remove CO2 out of the atmosphere in order for us to pollute it even more.

Then there is the issue of unintended side-effects which are very hard to predict. Human history is saturated with balls ups caused by well-meaning people trying to meddle with natural systems that were more complex than they thought.

While there have been calls for guidelines for geoengineering research, there is as yet no international mechanism to regulate it. We’ve already done plenty to mess up the planet – the last thing we need are overenthusiastic would-be climate engineers on a mission to test their latest schemes without oversight.

Of course there is a case to be made for finding out as much as we can about potential geoengineering solutions, but we also need to come to grips with the reality that geoengineering is no silver bullet that will fix this crisis.

It’s not that I’m anti-technology per se, I just don’t relish the image of a cyborg-earth that’s permanently kept on life-support by a geoengineered artificial lung.

We have the technology to massively improve energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve the ecosystems that keep the natural carbon cycle going. And we still have time to use these technologies to reign in climate change, but we have to do so decisively right now.

In his book Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, Clive Hamilton contrasts the opinions of two scientists. The first asks “we’ve engineered every other environment we live in – why not the planet?” to which the second replies “how can you engineer a system you don’t understand?”

Geoengineer the planet or not? What do you think we should do?

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
 
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