Andreas Späth

Re-designing the planet

2010-05-19 07:45

So geoengineering - the large-scale, intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate - is going to save us all from global warming. In a dramatic last-ditch effort a crack team of the world’s finest scientific minds is going to come up with a brilliant technical solution, the ultimate planetary Plan B.

Sound like one of those rather predictable Hollywood Armageddon flicks? Well, until quite recently, geoengineering was the exclusive domain of “fringe” (read “wacko”) scientists and sci-fi writers, but nowadays respectable researchers and venerable institutions from the British Royal Society to the American Association for the Advancement of Science are suggesting that it may provide us with an emergency fall-back solution if and when the climate crisis gets out of hand.

A number of governments and private companies have started to invest in a variety of different geoengineering options. Many of the proposed schemes, even the less radical ones, sound as outlandish now as they did five years ago:

• Launching giant orbiting space mirrors - or, more likely, millions of tiny ones - to reflect part of the sun’s radiation and help cool the planet.

• Spraying seawater into the air from ships, with the evaporating droplets turning into tiny, shiny salt crystals which would aid in seeding clouds and making them more reflective to sunlight.

• Fertilising the oceans with iron to stimulate the growth of plankton which will absorb climate-changing CO2 from the atmosphere. Plankton also releases a chemical called dimethyl sulphide which contributes to cloud formation.

• Using fake “volcanoes” to pump liquid sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere, mimicking the effect of real volcanic eruptions by creating a reflective blanket of aerosol droplets.

• Constructing hundreds of thousands of artificial “trees” that use a chemical process to scrub CO2 out of the air.

Would these interventions work to counteract climate change? On paper, yes, some of them can do the job, but for obvious reasons none of them have been tested in practice on any scale approximating that required to reign in an entire planet’s weather patterns. There are also major uncertainties regarding long-term effectiveness and cost, not to mention unpredictable detrimental side-effects.

The earth’s climate is an immensely complex system and fiddling with it on a global level could lead to significant changes in local patterns of rainfall, winds, droughts and ocean currents, while aerosols injected into the upper atmosphere could trigger a depletion of the ozone layer and acid precipitation. Is that really something we want to meddle with?

According to Professor John Sheperd, who chaired a 2009 Royal Society study on the subject, “geoengineering and its consequences are the price we may have to pay for failure to act on climate change.” But if the world’s politicians can’t agree on meaningful and deep cuts in CO2 emissions now, can you imagine them ever seeing eye-to-eye on who gets to control the climate of the future through major technological interventions? The geopolitical implications are nightmarish.

Besides my significant reservations about attempting unpredictable modifications of an unpredictable system that just happens to sustain our entire planet’s biosphere, my main issue with geoengineering concerns the fact that just about all of the proposed measures address the symptoms of climate change and not the cause - the fact that humans are causing the emission of too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Before we hand over the planet to the technocrats with mega-solutions, why don’t we simply apply the Stop-what-you’re-doing Principle? If, while continuously banging your forehead against a brick wall, you find that you’re suffering from a major headache, organising a permanent drip to mainline painkillers is certainly one solution. But wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to just stop smacking your head into the wall?

We already have the knowhow to counteract global warming by drastically reducing our CO2 emissions through massive investments in energy efficiency and clean, renewable sources of energy. All that’s required are our personal convictions and the political will - the latter being strongly nudged along by the former. Let’s leave meddling with the climate to the super-villains in 007 and X-Men movies.

Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

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