Geoengineering – the last resort to save the planet?

Posted: March 3, 2009 in environment, science & technology
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Here in Australia we might have the first serious signs of climate change with record heat, dwindling water reserves and devastating bushfires and floods; Europe, Asia and the Americas all have their own telltale records of rain, storms and hot and cold temperatures. With the outlook dimming that governments around the world will succeed in halting the seemingly unstoppable global warming train, a certain desperation seems to set in amongst the science community, including those who previously strongly argued against geoengineering (see image above) as a technological fix to save the planet. Climatologists have hit a “social tipping point”, despite some still arguing that endorsing the concept might scupper whatever little hope is left that a post-Kyoto protocol might be successfully negotiated and implemented.

But it’s not only this political argument that causes warranted resistance to going ahead with geoengineering technologies. Apart from the additional technological challenges, deep concerns against it are warranted based on the environmental risks involved (see article links below). After all, it was us messing around with the climate that got us into our current predicaments, and while we might have lots of creative ideas how to engineer ways of fiddling with the global thermostat, we don’t have a clue about the possible consequences. We simply do not have anything in terms of climate change theory and practice that resembles a comprehensive understanding of the inner workings of the planet’s climate.

Nevertheless, the number of voices calling for geoengineering being seriously considered as a Plan B is growing. One temptation of course is that it is relatively cheap compared to the cost of slashing emissions – a few billion dollars versus at least 1 per cent of global GDP, and that attracts the economically thinking to the plan while at the same time many climatologist are becoming very worried about time running out. But even if we would go ahead with attempting to engineer our climate against political, environmental and technological concerns, public resistance would have to be overcome and a lot of implementation questions would have to be answered.

In 2007, a commercial firm called Planktos wanted to dump iron filings into the ocean off the Galapagos Islands, and last year a research ship set off to seed the Southern Oceans with iron. Both cases triggered strong protests from environmental groups fearing for the health of the ocean’s ecosystems. The Planktos furore was swiftly followed by the London Convention on the Prevention od Marine Pollution (ratified by over 80 countries) extending its remit to include geoengineering and imposing a ban on commercial fertilisation. As a follow-on, interested parties met last month to begin to set up experimental standards.

But it’s not just commercial and other organisations wanting to play with our climate; individuals do too. Already in 2005, Yuri Izrael (former vice chair of the International Panel on Climate Change) urged Vladimir Putin to immediately release 600,000 tonnes of sulphur aerosols into the atmosphere as a sunshade – fortunately that didn’t happen. And in November 2006, Gregory Benford (astrophysicist at the University of California, Irvine) wanted to use private funding to “cut through red tape and demonstrate what could be done” by injecting chalk-like substances into the Arctic stratosphere to reflect sunlight – fortunately that was prevented too.

All these cases highlight that international regulation would be needed before any attempt is made to implement geoengineering technologies. It seems that for example only a handful of countries (because of their size and location) have the ability to deploy atmospheric sunshades – including Australia, Brazil, China, India, Russia, the US and the EU. If any of those would seriously consider going it alone, it could not only lead to considerable and little understood environmental consequences but also amount to at least a serious diplomatic incident or even falling foul of the UN Convention of the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD). After all, the cooling of one large region on Earth could lead to wild weather in another.

The obvious choice for regulating geoengineering initiatives would be the UN; given its track record of failure to unite the world behind serious efforts to curb greenhouse emissions, it is doubtful it would have much success. That makes tweaking the Earth’s thermostat yet another potential hazard and contributor to the uncertainty of future life on this planet – as if greenhouse gases causing rising sea levels, mass extinctions, vast new swathes of uninhabitable land and extreme weather conditions aren’t enough to be worried about.

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  1. John says:

    The Green technofascists have already meddled with the climate by their ridiculous campaign against acid rain. The natural sulphate compounds that a benevolent Mother Nature has provided in coal to increase the earth’s reflectivity and automatically compensate for the effects of increased C02 have been geo-engineered out at vast expense by giant monuments to ecological folly! Before this rubbish had progressed, the main worry was about global cooling and a new ice age. Now their ham-fisted meddling threatens to cook us all.

    By burning more coal in the good old fashioned style, we can get more power to increase our living standards, instead of living in green-mandated poverty, and at the same time bring the climate back into balance. The real cause of this nonsense is the Green’s lust for power. Not satisfied with having wasting everyone’s time and money by fussing about a bit of sulphur in the atmosphere, they now wish to reduce us all to poverty just for the sadistic thrill it will give them!

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