Photo via NASA, Public Domain
Geoengineering a disaster?
Ah, geoengineering -- the topic every climate-conscious lady or gent has a strong opinion on. It brings up all those fun questions: If things get bad enough, like if man continues to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at alarming rates -- can we use science to hack the planet? Is it worth investing big research bucks in, just in case? What would be the best route: Something innocuous like white roofing or tree planting projects, or something more sci-fi wet dream-esque, like launching hordes of tiny reflectors into space? Or would funding geoengineering divert resources from the more important task of seriously curbing emissions in the first place, and give folks the impression that cutting carbon isn't a priority? Or is the whole thing just too damn dangerous and unwieldy to warrant discussion in the first place? I've got all the answers, after the jump. Kidding, of course. But there's one thing for certain that can be picked out of the whole confounding debate -- this is something we need to think long and hard about right now. And not just because we may have to deploy one of the technologies geoengineering -- but because we may need to know how to fight ardently against it should a proposed solution get snatched up and touted as a solution to all our woes.
I'm especially worried about this happening here in the United States -- we have a long, storied tradition of preferring quick fixes and feats of engineering marvel over making inconvenient decisions and implementing sound, far-reaching policy. If the right ever relents in its near-universal climate ignorance, I especially fear that an answer like geoengineering would be the preferred solution -- as it would be with many on the left as well, no doubt.
So let's talk about it. Last week, Slate ran a series of articles under the Future Tense banner examining geoengineering inside and out (all but the hard science of it). They looked at the political dilemma geoengineering would impose on Washington, the merits of at least having the conversation about the topic, the dangers it poses -- both bureaucratic and to humanity in general -- and even whipped up a slightly goofy but fun interactive app where you can play around with the different geoengingeering proposals. The series culminated in a symposium held on the subject today.
All of are well worth reading (well, except one, which I will instead paraphrase for you here: Climate change is complicated, and is tied to the global economy. Geoengineering is complicated too, and should not be treated like a silver bullet. Not exactly revelatory.). Most illuminating to me was the historian's take on the legacy of geoengineering so far -- and yes, there is indeed already a history of GE, it's just not widely known or touted by its advocates. Turns out that with our little cold war phase of toying with hydrogen bombs, we and Russia did a little geoengineering already -- to disastrous effect.
Also interesting in another piece was the idea that funding GE federally could create a self-perpetuating 'research' bureaucracy that siphons precious resources from more worthy sectors -- like climate change mitigation and adaptation, for example.
A couple of the articles point out, rightfully so, that actually managing geonengineering would be near-impossible without a functioning, cooperative global governance behind the controls, and nobody has any clue how that would be achieved -- we can't even ratify a treaty establishing emissions reduction goals, remember?
The series eventually boils down to the familiar premises, which we should continue to analyze and explore: Worth funding as a Plan B, or not? It's risky, yes, but so is failing to counter steadily rising emissions. It's dangerous, sure, but might we have no choice?
My feeling is (and the general sense I get from the articles) that GE may at some point be a reality worth considering, to certain degrees (bring on the white roofs and the tree-planting) -- but for now, our efforts should be focused, laser-like, on mitigation. It's not too late to stop catastrophic climate change from occurring, and mitigation is infinitely safer and more predictable than most of the suggestions in the GE realm. And if we could feasibly build the political will behind geoengineering, hypothetically we should be able to do so for serious carbon-reducing efforts (though GE of course has the distinct benefit of not conflicting with fossil fuel interests ...). Let's be realistic -- let's do what we know could work: Reduce emissions, and eventually the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, and slowly bring the planet's climate back towards its natural equilibrium.
More on Geoengineering
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Geoengineering Redux: Fertilizing Trees with Nitrogen to Fight Global Warming