Geoengineering is a Technical Fix for a Political Problem

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists/Screen capture

It's easy to see the temptation of geoengineering as a climate quick-fix. If the political will necessary to reduce and prevent further climate change is impossible, as it has started to seem to be, then there's a compelling case to find alternate solutions. Why not scatter tiny sulfate particles into the atmosphere to scatter sunlight before it reaches—and warms—the earth's surface?

That's the kind of technology touted as a solution to climate change—although there are more modest examples as well—by geoengineering advocates who have some hefty funding and political influence behind them, according to recent reports.

Undue Influence

The Guardian ran a story this week detailing how wealthy individuals like Bill Gates—and, of all people, the man who's said to have more at stake in the Canadian oil sands than anyone—have used their resources to support researchers to study large-scale geoengineering and to pressure governments into paying for similar research:

Concern is now growing that the small but influential group of scientists, and their backers, may have a disproportionate effect on major decisions about geoengineering research and policy...

As well as [Bill] Gates, other wealthy individuals including Sir Richard Branson, tar sands magnate Murray Edwards and the co-founder of Skype, Niklas Zennström, have funded a series of official reports into future use of the technology. Branson, who has frequently called for geoengineering to combat climate change, helped fund the Royal Society's inquiry into solar radiation management last year through his Carbon War Room charity. It is not known how much he contributed.

Professors David Keith, of Harvard University, and Ken Caldeira of Stanford, are the world's two leading advocates of major research into geoengineering the upper atmosphere to provide earth with a reflective shield. They have so far received over $4.6m from Gates to run the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (Ficer). Nearly half Ficer's money, which comes directly from Gates's personal funds, has so far been used for their own research, but the rest is disbursed by them to fund the work of other advocates of large-scale interventions.

The Guardian has plenty more details on money that has changed hands and who has supported geoengineering research efforts, and explains some of the risks and concerns involved.

But one of the chief concerns that geoengineering critics have is the lack of any kind of checks-and-balances system for overseeing these efforts—which Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, summarized in the Guardian story pretty well: "The stakes are very high and scientists are not the best people to deal with the social, ethical or political issues that geoengineering raises... The idea that a self-selected group should have so much influence is bizarre."

Risky Experiment, But No Guaranteed Results

These efforts need to use the planet as a testing lab: they will take place on a tremendous scale and, in the case of the sulfur particles, in the upper atmosphere, not exactly a tried-and-true laboratory environment. But there are already lessons to be learned from biotechnology used here on earth. Chiefly, nature is unpredictable when you unleash these unprecedented experiments on it. And the unintended consequences cannot be undone.

Geoengineering risks exacerbating some of the very problems that these experiments are supposed to be designed to solve, according to NPR:

Even if the global average remained the same, some regions might get hotter while others get colder. That could cause drastic local or regional changes in climate and weather patterns.

Also, geoengineering wouldn't prevent other harmful effects of higher CO2 levels, such as ocean acidification, she says.

And both of those problems would threaten local food security, especially in areas where people already have trouble getting enough to eat.

There have been studies showing that the sulfate particle solution wouldn't fully offset climate change. UPI explains, starting off with University of Washington doctoral student in atmospheric sciences Kelly McCusker:

"Later this century, you would not be able to recreate present-day Earth just by adding sulfate aerosols to the atmosphere."

And the odds of a "climate surprise" would be high because the uncertainties about the effects of geoengineering would be added to existing uncertainties about climate change, the researchers said.

And the published a study a few years ago, "20 Reasons Why Geoengineering May Be a Bad Idea" [PDF], asking if the cure is worse than the disease.

In a debate on Democracy Now!, Vandana Shiva said:

Einstein warned us and said you can’t solve problems with the same mindset that created them. Geoengineering is trying to solve the problems with the same old mindset of controlling nature. And the phrase that was used, of cheating — let’s cheat — you can’t cheat nature. That’s something people should recognize by now. There is no cheating possible.

Solving the Wrong Problem

Gwynne Dyer, Shiva's opponent in the debate and a geopolitical analyst, explained the compelling argument for geoengineering:

Geoengineering is short-term interventions to avoid a climate runaway disaster, in order to give us more time to get our emissions down, which, in themselves, will cause a runaway, climate disaster if we simply allow them to go ahead. Without geoengineering, you hit that disaster in less than fifty years. And you probably need more than fifty years to get your emissions down.

Even if it does work as a short-term intervention—how does that help, exactly? People don't get motivated to find solutions if they think there's an 'easy' way out. And it certainly won't inspire governments to act if they've already refused to do so for more than a decade. To revisit Vandana Shiva's words, geoengineering is a shortcut meant to cheat the problem, and you can't cheat nature.

And as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists study concluded, "If global warming is a political problem more than it is a technical problem, it follows that we don’t need geoengineering to solve it."

Tags: Geoengineering | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions