Can We Engineer the Planet to Fight Global Warming?
Archimedes, the Ancient Greek mathematician and engineer, once said something like: “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” In the centuries since, the idea hasn’t gone away. Humanity is always looking for powerful new tools to change the world.
Which brings us to climate change.
While climate change is a contested subject, there’s growing evidence that it’s a big problem, and we aren’t helping. In this age of big data analytics, scientists are crunching numbers on sea level and thermal imaging and the results aren’t promising. A growing number of experts are speaking out and warning that if we don’t start implementing changes soon, we could do permanent and possibly apocalyptic damage to the biosphere.
The History of Geoengineering
The fear of climate change has sparked a lot of discussion and governmental policies to help limit emissions in the hopes of reversing the damage we’re causing. However, political progress has been slow – and, even with dramatic reductions in our emissions, it may already be too late to avoid all of the damage.
This has pushed scientists to think of other innovative ways of fighting climate change that may speed up the process. This is where geoengineering comes in. Geoengineering is the process of deliberately altering of our planet’s environment. Approaches range from seeding reflective material into the upper atmosphere to doping the oceans with specific chemicals.
Believe it or not, this isn’t a new idea. While the term geoengineering itself may be new, the idea of manipulating weather has been around for a while. Examples of rainmaking – attempting to artificially induce or increase precipitation – can be traced back to the 1830s, when James Espy proposed setting fire to the crest of the Appalachian mountains to generate heated updrafts that would stimulate rain.
In 1991, The Philippines faced a Pompeii-like disaster when Mount Pinatubo erupted, covering over a thousand square miles with ash, sulfur and other volcanic deposits. However, during the months following the eruption, scientists noticed a dramatic cooling in the atmosphere. Apparently, the volcanic ash served to block out sunlight, cooling the earth underneath.
Likewise, when the supervolcano Mt. Tambora erupted in 1815, the plume of ash dropped the global temperature by an average of 1.3 degrees fahrenheit (about the same amount of temperature change as all global warming since 1880 combined). The effects were profound: 1816 is known as “The Year Without a Summer.” Snow fell in Albany NY in June. The colder climate ruined harvests, leading to mass food shortages.
This represents one of the most powerful ways to impact the climate – seeding the upper atmosphere with sulphur like that produced by a volcano to redirect sunlight away from the planet. Other ideas include fertilizing the ocean with iron dust to increase the number of phytoplankton that feed on carbon dioxide, or brightening clouds with salt water to increase their reflectivity.
However, for the time being, the sulphur idea remains the most practical method of intervening in the climate intentionally. It also has one other major perk going for it: it’s cheap. Fixing climate change the usual way is extremely expensive, both in terms of dollars and human lives. The restrictions needed to produce large-scale emissions reductions will take years, cripple economic growth, and devastate emerging markers, disproportionately hurting the poor. In contrast, filling the upper atmosphere with large amounts of sulphur would cost only a few billion dollars and could be done immediately.
Unfortunately, there are a number of potential problems with geoengineering. Climates are unpredictable. While our best models don’t predict enormous ill effects from geo-engineering, there’s a real danger there. If we mess up, we could actually kill everyone.
There’s also a practical concern about the sulphur approach: during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, scientists also noticed an increased deterioration of the ozone layer. For those who forget their high school science, the ozone layer is a portion of the atmosphere that shields us from the sun’s UV radiation. Depletion of this layer increases the incidence of skin cancer, and has complex ecological effects. At this point we know that releasing different chemicals in the atmosphere might cool the earth, but the risk is they could also destroy the ozone. The good news is that it looks like there may be some solutions to this: David Keith, the climatologist in the video above, thinks it may be possible to create a layer of material that floats above the ozone layer, cooling the world without damaging it.
There’s also another objection to geo-engineering that’s a little subtler. There’s a concept in economics called a ‘moral hazard’, which describes how people change the way they act when they’re protected from consequences. Banks behave more recklessly when they know they’ll be bailed out, for example.
In the case of climate change, people and regulators are finally beginning to make positive environmental changes to stave off global warming. However, if we develop these geoengineering processes to combat climate change, people may revert back to old habits. After all, what’s the point of driving futuristic cars or switching to solar energy if scientists can snap their fingers and fix the problem.
Without more fundamental reductions in pollution, subtler dangers like the acidification of the ocean and atmospheric compositional changes will continue to accumulate, even if we reverse climate change itself.
Should We Do It?
For the moment, we don’t know exactly what the effects of geoengineering are. Many are against the idea, but it seems like too powerful a tool to abandon lightly.
We should continue to cut back on consumption and emissions, but why not combine that with other useful technologies? It seems worthwhile to at least do some small-scale tests to try to determine the effects of different interventions. Furthermore, it may turn out that we don’t have a choice: if the US is too cautious to take the risk, China may not be.
What do you think? Is geoengineering the answer to global warming? Weigh in below in the comments.