Image: Clouds Seeded Over Las Vegas Flickr, Saschapohflepp
In an opinion piece in the Jan. 27 online issue of Nature (paid content), scientists from Canada and the United States argue that internationally coordinated research and controlled field-testing of geo-engineering options to block the sun should start immediately. Most likely, you heard the economic benefits already on the Jon Stewart Show. The authors of this opinion add an even more urgent rationale: if the good people of planet earth don't act, rogue states will. And international bodies will not have the "scientific evidence" of risks sufficient to stop them. Is this a realistic justification to start seeding clouds or building giant mirrors? Author David Keith (director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy's energy and environmental systems group and a professor in the Schulich School of Engineering), and co-authors Edward Parson of the University of Michigan and Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon University, make a call for "collaborative and government-supported studies on solar-radiation management." The studies should aim to understand the theory and impacts of geo-engineering to micro-control the planet's temperature by influencing the amount of solar radiation that gets retained by earth's atmosphere. In particular, scientists needs to be able to prove and quantify any risks involved. Keith explains:
Solar-radiation management may be the only human response that can fend off rapid and high-consequence climate change impacts. The risks of not doing research outweigh the risks of doing it.
Options put forth in the paper include seeding clouds to better reflect sunlight and injecting aerosol particles into the atmosphere to scatter light. But geo-engineering proposals don't stop there, going as far as to suggest building huge mirrors in space. Matthew's round-up of 7 Geoengineering Solutions That Promise To Save Humans from Climate Change gives an overview of the leading candidates.
Is your gut reaction "Oh no! Not another technological solution that will have unforeseen repercussions!" then you are not alone. The fact is, humans have been engaged in geo-engineering for a long time now. We plug up rivers to win power. We fix nitrogen chemically and return it to the soils which are easily depleted now that flood cycles are restricted. We trap dangerous wastes, now including carbon dioxide, and pump it deep into the earth -- hoping it will never return.
The other fact is: we get it wrong quite often. From Silent Spring to unexplained explosions in certain human diseases, we see the pattern of unintended consequences repeat itself. So what makes anyone certain that geo-engineering is a good idea?
The Arguments for Geo-Engineering
Keith et. al. introduce a new argument to an ongoing debate. It comes from a viewpoint particularly influenced by American legal and regulatory systems: the premise that government should not/cannot stop technological advances unless there is science proving the risks. In places where the "precautionary principle" is practiced, studies intended to prove the risks of geo-engineering take second rank to theoretical examination of the concepts. This approach might approve studies intended to enhance normal geological cycles, while putting the kibosh on anything that has no precedent from which to model possible outcomes.
But their point about rogue states hits home. Geo-engineering is painted as a cheaper, easier solution than controlling emissions. The temptations are great to take this "easy way out." The repercussions of a failed geo-engineering experiment may well be global, even if the study is conducted locally -- just as air emissions have emerged as a global rather than a local issue. A rogue state, applying neither the precautionary principle nor the democratic checks and balances of litigation and regulation to their aspirations, could throw the arguments out of the theoretical in a hurry.
All other arguments can be put to the side in the face of this fact. Certainly, we need to avoid the mistake of using technological solutions because we can and not because it is the best decision in the big picture. At some point, we need to get past the "puritanical perspective": that humans should pay the price of our emissions and not use a "get out of jail free" card; or the "human virus" perspective: that we deserve everything we get. Those emotional reactions inhibit rationale discussion of the best path forward. But they wilt in the face of the challenge of emotions that consideration of the winners and losers from geo-engineering will bring. Should we save the planet if it means changed weather patterns will wipe out certain parts of it that are happily inhabited today?
But there is the final fact: momentum is waning to limit emissions sufficiently to prevent warming predictions that are close to universally endorsed by the scientific community. (And it should be mentioned, the scientists behind the opinion piece certainly reinforce their belief that action on this path is still the first, best choice.) So if we don't look at alternatives now -- and learn the risks and possibilities -- we will be in no position to make the hard decisions should we find our backs against the wall. It would be absolutely naive to think that humans will contain the urge to react with projects of heroic proportion should that day arrive. Which brings us back to the opinion in Nature:
The scientists propose that governments establish an international research budget for SRM that grows from about $10 million to $1 billion a year between now and the end of 2020. They urge that research results be available to all and risk assessments be as transparent and international as possible to build sound norms of governance for SRM.
What do you think? Share your voice on the topic in the comments.
More on geo-engineering:
7 Geoengineering Solutions That Promise To Save Humans from Climate Change
Geoengineering to Stop Climate Change: The Effective, the Risky and the Useless Outlined in New Research Paper
Geo-Engineering Risk Potential Not An Excuse for Inaction, Scientist Says
Does Geoengineering Need a Dose of Geo-Ethics?
Andy Revkin on Geoengineering