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Notes from a Small Planet: Too Soon for Geo-Engineering?
by Aaron Dorman
“MASSIVE TOOL.” That’s how a professor of mine characterized David Keith, the author of a 2013 book, A Case for Climate Engineering, which touts certain proposals for geo-engineering. We’d been asked to read Keith’s book as part of a graduate course on geo-engineering and other high-concept techno-solutions to global warming.
One particular approach, “solar radiation management,” or SRM -- the category of engineering that includes seeding the stratosphere with sulfate particulates -- is extremely contentious among environmental advocates. Scientists like Katharine Hayhoe think the untested effects could be dangerous. Writers like Naomi Klein (she’s not the only one -- see Joe Romm!) use those fears to point out the innate deference to moneyed interests that such solutions imply. Klein’s derogative for geo-engineering advocates is the “geo-clique.” Yet I was honestly surprised by how even-handed Dr. Keith’s arguments are when I re-read his book this past month.
While Keith (who has funding ties to Bill Gates, among others) is clearly an advocate of using SRM to modify the Earth’s climate, he does not brush over the potential dangers and mostly calls for further research into the topic, a position he still maintains. He also warns, correctly, that because “the dispersal systems required to get started [with SRM] could be deployed in a few years for the price of a Hollywood blockbuster,” more understanding of the situation is necessary, not less, since, theoretically. any nation might choose to hit this particular panic button.
Even SRM’s biggest critics agree that sulfate seeding mimics the natural process of a large volcanic eruption. The dangers here are not of the “grey-goo” variety but rather that the climate system is too complex to accurately predict all effects, and were major droughts to occur, say, in South Asia, the blame would find a target and could trigger regional conflict.
The “reasonable” proposals for SRM, then, involve slowly ramping up the deployment of sulfate-spraying jets for several decades, before an equal and opposite drawdown, until all of the particulates have washed out of the stratosphere, possibly as long as a century from now. At any point between, any small or sudden change to the procedure could trigger rapid warming and would do absolutely nothing to solve ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, or other environmental issues related to runaway consumption.
NOT ALL GEO-ENGINEERING plans are so dubious. These include spraying saltwater above the oceans, making deserts “shiny” to increase albedo (reflectivity of sunlight by the Earth’s surface), planting lots and lots of trees, and building carbon-sucking turbines — plans collectively classified as CDR (carbon dioxide removal). As a general concept, however, geo-engineering feels like a bit of a side hustle. It’s a hail-Mary solution to climate change, proposed as we delicately dance around the elephant in the room -- the unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels (and other resources) -- so as not to appear culturally insensitive to the Koch Brothers.
Geo-engineering feels a lot like the right wing’s solution to gun violence in America: arming teachers, mental illness “treatment,” early intervention by police, anything but gun control. Yet many geo-engineering proposals are economically viable and have been touted by influential people like Gates and Richard Branson. I imagine there is something of a curve: The more environmentally “neutral” these projects are, the more they simply resemble renewable energy infrastructure and could conceivable run into the same problems of sufficient investment and scale.
As an environmentalist, I worry that geo-engineering plans reinforce the idea that all environment schemes must be economically viable or even enriching. Wal-Mart must outlast the polar bears; possibly the humans, too.
Still, it’s not that simple. While I’m wary of the the idea of geo-engineering in general, in particular SRM and its position in the climate change debate, I recognize that geo-engineering is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Some projects like reforestation are even inspiring in their ingenuity -- but while it sounds very green, it does not solve the issue of rebuilding ecosystems. Another, probably most “effective” carbon-capturing plan involves growing huge monocultures, burning them, and then shoving it all underground. This is not the most terrifying proposal, but also not one that’s going to bring back the condors.
The best way to think about geo-engineering is as a bridge solution. Its most important rule should be: We Should Not Begin Large Scale Geo-engineering Until We Have Reworked Our Fossil Fuel Infrastructure.
For a bridge solution to work, it must be allowed to become “only” a bridge. Both endpoints should already exist. Otherwise, a “bridge” to a better tomorrow becomes a never-ending bridge to nowhere, an infinity band-aid on an expanding wound that will never heal.
ANY PLAN that entails international consequences is bound to be a political nightmare. Whatever agreement we can imagine that would approve atmospheric seeding -- at the very at the United Nations, involving all the countries with veto power -- may be fragile enough to fall apart within decades.
The best worst excuse for geo-engineering is that it’s already being done, not via government conspiracy but accidentally, by industrial pollutants in the developing world. According to a recent article in Grist, aerosols from human activity have helped mitigate further warming over the past several decades, creating the frustrating paradox that making our air healthier could actually exacerbate global warming.
In summary I think that environmental organizations should adopt a strict “if, then” approach to geo-engineering. “If” we have credible plans in place to draw down our fossil fuel usage, if solar and wind are supported enough to scale up significantly around the globe, if (insert any other relevant societal change here: electric cars, meatless Mondays, etc), then geo-engineering can and should be implemented as a supplement.
But if people, in particular politicians, more vocally advocate for technological solutions to climate change, ones with “limited consequences” (to the existing fossil fuel industry), that is a level of magical thinking, and it exists even among Democrats. The search for a win-win, least-antagonistic solution to solving climate change has thus far produced impotent, non-binding international agreements, and no realistic roadmap (to say nothing of actual results) towards carbon draw-down. So many baby steps towards a renewable future are, at any time, only one Trump away from thwarted. You can see the temptation for environmentalists to embrace geo-engineering as a necessary solution -- but as it only masks certain symptoms of atmospheric carbon, it doesn’t actually solve anything, unless you are a “green” investor looking for new technologies to milk money from. The SRM schema is simply a trade of one perpetual and escalating crises for another. If all responses to climate change from this point forward are going to be so far-reaching, this question unstated in our current political nightmare nevertheless answers itself.
Aaron Dorman is a freelance writer/reporter focusing on environmental and science communication. He recently appeared here with an article, “#Me, Too, Said Mother Earth.”