Many of the world’s major scientific establishments are discussing the concept of modifying the Earth’s climate to offset global warming
Many leading scientific institutions are now looking at proposed ways to engineer the planet’s climate to offset the impacts of global warming. Photograph: NASA/REUTERS
There’s a bit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where things get “curiouser and curiouser” as the heroine tries to reach a garden at the end of a rat-hole sized corridor that she’s just way too big for.
She drinks a potion and eats a cake with no real clue what the consequences might be. She grows to nine feet tall, shrinks to ten inches high and cries literal floods of frustrated tears.
I spent a couple of days at a symposium in Sydney last week that looked at the moral and ethical issues around the concept of geoengineering the Earth’s climate as a “response” to global warming.
No metaphor is ever quite perfect (climate impacts are no ‘wonderland’), but Alice’s curious experiences down the rabbit hole seem to fit the idea of medicating the globe out of a possible catastrophe.
And yes, the fact that in some quarters geoengineering is now on the table shows how the debate over climate change policy is itself becoming “curiouser and curiouser” still.
It’s tempting too to dismiss ideas like pumping sulphate particles into the atmosphere or making clouds whiter as some sort of surrealist science fiction.
But beyond the curiosity lies actions being countenanced and discussed by some of the world’s leading scientific institutions.
What is geoengineering?
Geoengineering – also known as climate engineering or climate modification – comes in as many flavours as might have been on offer at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
Professor Jim Falk, of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne, has a list of more than 40 different techniques that have been suggested.
They generally take two approaches.
Carbon Dioxide Reduction (CDR) is pretty self explanatory. Think tree planting, algae farming, increasing the carbon in soils, fertilising the oceans or capturing emissions from power stations. Anything that cuts the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques are concepts to try and reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the earth. Think pumping sulphate particles into the atmosphere (this mimics major volcanic eruptions that have a cooling effect on the planet), trying to whiten clouds or more benign ideas like painting roofs white.
Geoengineering on the table
In 2008 an Australian Government–backed research group issued a report on the state-of-play of ocean fertilisation, recording there had been 12 experiments carried out of various kinds with limited to zero evidence of “success”.
This priming of the “biological pump” as its known, promotes the growth of organisms (phytoplankton) that store carbon and then sink to the bottom of the ocean.
The report raised the prospect that larger scale experiments could interfere with the oceanic food chain, create oxygen-depleted “dead zones” (no fish folks), impact on corals and plants and various other unknowns.
The Royal Society – the world’s oldest scientific institution – released a report in 2009, also reviewing various geoengineering technologies.
In 2011, Australian scientists gathered at a geoengineering symposium organised by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
The London Protocol – a maritime convention relating to dumping at sea – was amended last year to try and regulate attempts at “ocean fertilisation” – where substances, usually iron, are dumped into the ocean to artificially raise the uptake of carbon dioxide.
The latest major United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also addressed the geoengineering issue in several chapters of its latest report. The IPCC summarised geoengineering this way.
CDR methods have biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale. There is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR on a century timescale. Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale.
Towards the end of this year, the US National Academy of Sciences will be publishing a major report on the “technical feasibility” of some geoengineering techniques.
Fighting Fire With Fire
The symposium in Sydney was co-hosted by the University of New South Wales and the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney (for full disclosure here, they paid my travel costs and one night stay).
Dr Matthew Kearnes, one of the organisers of the workshop from UNSW, told me there was “nervousness among many people about even thinking or talking about geoengineering.” He said:
I would not want to dismiss that nervousness, but this is an agenda that’s now out there and it seems to be gathering steam and credibility in some elite establishments.
Internationally geoengineering tends to be framed pretty narrowly as just a case of technical feasibility, cost and efficacy. Could it be done? What would it cost? How quickly would it work?
We wanted to get a way from the arguments about the pros and cons and instead think much more carefully about what this tells us about the climate change debate more generally.
The symposium covered a range of frankly exhausting philosophical, social and political considerations – each of them jumbo-sized cans full of worms ready to open.
Professor Stephen Gardiner, of the University of Washington, Seattle, pushed for the wider community to think about the ethical and moral consequences of geoengineering. He drew a parallel between the way, he said, that current fossil fuel combustion takes benefits now at the expense of impacts on future generations. Geoengineering risked making the same mistake.
Clive Hamilton’s book Earthmasters notes “in practice any realistic assessment of how the world works must conclude that geoengineering research is virtually certain to reduce incentives to pursue emission reductions”.
Curiouser still, is that some of the world’s think tanks who shout the loudest that human-caused climate change might not even be a thing, or at least a thing not worth worrying about, are happy to countenance geoengineering as a solution to the problem they think is overblown.
For example, in January this year the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a US-based think tank founded by Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg, issued a submission to an Australian Senate inquiry looking at overseas aid and development.
Lomborg’s center has for many years argued that cutting greenhouse gas emissions is too expensive and that action on climate change should have a low-priority compared to other issues around the world.
Lomborg himself says human-caused climate change will not turn into an economic negative until near the end of this century.
Yet Lomborg’s submission told the Australian Senate suggested that every dollar spent on “investigat[ing] the feasibility of planetary cooling through geoengineering technologies” could yield “$1000 of benefits” although this, Lomborg wrote, was a “rough estimate”.
But these investigations, Lomborg submitted, “would serve to better understand risks, costs, and benefits, but also act as an important potential insurance against global warming”.
Engineering another excuse
Several academics I’ve spoken with have voiced fears that the idea of unproven and potentially disastrous geoengineering technologies being an option to shield societies from the impacts of climate change could be used to distract policy makers and the public from addressing the core of the climate change issue – that is, curbing emissions in the first place.
But if the idea of some future nation, or group of nations, or even corporations, some embarking on a major project to modify the Earth’s climate systems leaves you feeling like you’ve fallen down a surreal rabbit hole, then perhaps we should also ask ourselves this.
Since the year 1750, the world has added something in the region of 1,339,000,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (that’s 1.34 trillion tonnes) to the atmosphere from fossil fuel and cement production.
Raising the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by 40 per cent could be seen as accidental geoengineering.
Time to crawl out of the rabbit hole?