Geoengineering Risk Potential Not An Excuse for Inaction, Scientist Says

Lake drying up under Australian drought conditions, photo: Tim via flickr

TreeHugger's run a couple of pieces about geo-engineering strategies in the past few weeks, some of which have brought out some spirited comments, so it's fortuitous then that in a recent interview for Yale Environment 360, David Keith of the University of Calgary (someone who most recently been researching CCS technologies and has been writing about geo-engineering for some time) weighs in on some of the issues that perennially crop up: The moral hazard of geo-engineering and risk of unintended consequences, and (my favorite) if we deploy this sort of technology, whether humanity really is ready to start do this sort of planetary management. Here are some highlights:Risk Depends on Technique
In the intro to the piece, interviewer Jeff Goodell points out that the risks of geo-engineering vary depending on technique. Some which mimic natural carbon cycles (such as ocean iron fertilization) are less risky, while others which attempt to change the albedo of the planet (shooting particles into the stratosphere by stimulating volcanic eruption, artificial cloud formation) might be worse.

On the risks associated with geo-engineering Keith said,

Well, the risks depend partly on what methods you actually use doing the geoengineering. If you put sulfur in the stratosphere, there's some possibility you'll decrease the amount of ozone in the stratosphere because we've observed that with volcanoes and sulfur in the stratosphere. And if you put some advanced engineered particles in the stratosphere like I've spent some time thinking about, it might be those particles have some completely unexpected environmental impact that we don't know about.

After all, there's a painfully long history of us doing engineering interventions in the earth's systems to solve one problem, and we just end up creating another problem. But despite that history, that's not an excuse for doing nothing.

Geo-Engineering a Distraction From Reducing Emissions?
That's a really hard question, and I have different views depending on which side of the bed I get up on in the morning. I guess if you're a total rationalist, the answer is we certainly should not put all of our efforts into cutting emissions. We should put most of our current money and work into cutting emissions, but we do need to figure out what to do in this worst case scenario.

Are Humans Ready to Engineer the Planet?
Though the technology isn't there yet, Keith was asked whether he sees it as inevitable that humans will someday engineer the entire planet, and are we morally ready to do so. Keith replied that it could happen:
Yeah, I think it's true. It's not something I necessarily want to see. But I think unless humans have some war that sets back human civilization, we will grow into doing a kind of planetary management. I think we'll end up being in the gardening business with this planet.

But I think we'd be better to do that much slower rather than quicker. And my hope would be we cut emissions enough that we don't need to geoengineer in the short-term, because I think that while technically we might be able to do this, humans are probably morally unready, or society is unready, to figure out how they'd use the power that comes from our technology to manipulate the planet.

Read the entire original piece, Geoengineering: The Prospect of Manipulating the Planet, to find out Keith's views on whether climate change is really a threat to human civilization, what might happen if aliens land on the White House lawn with a box that could control climate, and the how carbon offsets can give a false sense of security for airline passengers.

Andy Revkin on Geoengineering
Think Ocean Geo-Engineering is a Good Idea? Think Again Australian Scientists Urge
Ocean Iron Fertilization Test in South Atlantic Given Go Ahead

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Geoengineering | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions