By Glenn Ashton
September 27, 2011
Humans certainly are an enterprising species. Problem is, our discoveries tend to result in unintended consequences.
People have now figured out that we may be able to repair or reduce our unintended impacts on the global climate by intentionally re-engineering it through a set of processes which have been collectively called “geo-engineering.” Besides the obvious moral considerations, there are serious practical concerns that geo-engineering has a high probability of making an already bad situation worse.
When fiddling with such a large, complex natural system the only certainty is that it is impossible to predict the eventual outcomes of our actions. Human induced or anthropogenic climate change is broadly accepted. The impacts appear to be happening faster and are worse than early predictions. Bar some shouting, the debate over.
There is a powerful lobby, mainly with vested interests in continuing with “business as usual”. They obdurately deny the realities of climate change. Given the obscenely spectacular profits within the fossil fuel industry, it is naïve to discount their leverage. The easy money will not be given up without a fight. These interests have bought influence across the world, from the US to Russia, China and beyond.
It is fascinating that these denialists are amongst the strongest and most vociferous supporters of geo-engineering. In doing so they not only undermine their own position by the implicit recognition of the problem, but go further to suggest it should be dealt with some urgency. While denying the unintentional impacts of humans on the climate, these same groups suggest we are able to fix the problem by consciously engineering the climate?
Ranged against this powerful lobby are those who oppose geo-engineering because of its potentially negative impacts on already unstable ecosystems. Further, opponents feel that geo-engineering is like giving a lung transplant to a heavy smoker – it deals with symptoms, not the cause. The results will at best be temporary.
Geo-engineering enjoyed brief currency a while back but it enjoyed resurgence after the failure of the climate talks in Copenhagen at the end of 2009, where multilateralism was trumped by narrow national self-interest and the profit motive. It is bound to be forced onto the agenda at the upcoming 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban which aims to salvage the talks from further delay.
So how do we propose to engineer the global climate?
There are two major categories of geo-engineering. The first proposes to remove greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, preventing global warming. The second aims to reduce the heating effects of solar radiation. The logic that underlies geo-engineering is informed mainly by the reductionist, engineering-oriented perspective of what is termed Mitigation, Adaptation and Geo-engineering. This approach is seriously criticised because it fails to deal with the underlying problem, in this case reducing fossil fuel emissions across the board.
To understand geo-engineering we first need to understand some principles of climate science. For instance light areas, such as snow and ice, reflect sunlight back out into space, reducing warming. This is called the albedo effect. There is concern that increased temperatures will reduce ice cover and create a feedback loop as the darker seas absorb more heat than snow and ice, accelerating warming.
In order to reduce the amount of incoming solar heat scientists have suggested that we could inject salt crystals, water or sulphates into the atmosphere. These could create more or lighter coloured clouds or insert a reflective layer into the upper atmosphere. Each of these mechanisms would bounce sunlight into space, theoretically reducing surface temperature.
The sulphate idea comes from the observed impacts of massive volcanic eruptions which inject sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the troposphere. The geo-engineering idea is to inject SO2 even higher into the stratosphere, to combine with water and reflect sunlight.
How can we practically do this? Ideas have included artillery shells, rockets and aircraft – going to war against climate change! Present thinking suggests using balloons, launched from ships or land from which a large hosepipe is held aloft, through which the SO2 is pumped. A European experiment proposes to test the concept this year and loft a balloon a kilometre into the sky and spray water.
The problem is not only the obvious expense. From a practical perspective it would be hugely challenging to shift those amounts of chemicals around the world to where they are needed, mainly in polar regions. Additionally the effects would be transitory and impossible to quantify if not undertaken at massive scale. The solution could also become too successful or otherwise destabilise atmospheric balance. The results are dangerously unpredictable, as are most geo-engineering concepts.
Bill Gates of Microsoft fame has put significant money and energy into examining geo-engineering and holds several patents on proposed solutions. He supports lofting tiny sea salt crystals into the air which would form whiter clouds. He also supports the SO2 option. Other wealthy entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson, also support geo-engineering. He formed an “engine room” group that promotes “market related responses” to climate change.
Other rather more sinister vested interests provide huge resources to directly and indirectly support geo-engineering. While energy corporations directly pursue ways to continue business as usual, they, together with conservative funders like the Koch and Skaife Foundations fund “independent” research and advocacy groups like the American Enterprise and Hudson Institutes. Not all supporters of geo-engineering are conservative capitalists or industrialists but these influences cannot be underestimated.
Other ways to slow warming include launching mirrors in space – either huge thin ones or billions of tiny ones - to reflect sunlight away from earth’s surface. This is clearly a hugely expensive and foolish idea. Another idea is to colour buildings and roads with pale or reflective coatings to increase the albedo. How about rather keeping our snow and ice cover intact?
Ironically, global warming itself provides a partial solution to the solar heating issue, but like many climate change conundrums, has a sting in the tail. A warmer world would result in increased cloud cover through increased evaporation. Yet more clouds trap more heat in the lower atmosphere. Clearly there are no simple answers.
Several other options are being tossed around. One is the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by artificial trees. This would be extremely energy intensive and expensive and largely pointless. How about leaving boreal and equatorial forest cover intact instead?
Energy companies like Eskom favour the concept of capturing CO2 from smoke stacks and injecting it underground, known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Costs would be significantly offset against payment made in carbon trading frameworks, where polluters pay for their emissions. Several other geo-engineering techniques rely on this highly controversial funding model which that enables polluters to simply pay their way out of trouble and pass costs down the line to consumers.
CCS is also projected for deep oceans, which runs a real risk of accelerating increased oceanic acidification. All CCS methods remain theoretical and will be expensive.
Biological CCS systems have been tried as well. These include scattering minerals like iron into the ocean, causing increased plankton blooms. Plankton absorb carbon dioxide, die and then fall to the bottom of the ocean, trapping the carbon. The ecological impacts of this are risky because of the large scales required to make any difference. This would disrupt entire oceanic ecosystems and food chains, with catastrophic results.
Another CCS method involves turning plants into charcoal, or biochar which effectively captures the carbon, which is then mixed into soil or seawater. The former has had questionable results in experiments to date, the latter is potentially polluting. The main questions around biochar revolve around matters of scale. Small-scale use of farm waste to make biochar may prove useful. On the other hand, transforming vast tracts of otherwise valuable land into plantations to produce carbon that is to be buried, paid through questionable carbon credits, is economically, socially and ecologically irresponsible.
A major question around geo-engineering is who regulates the initiation of geo-engineering projects. National governments? Private corporations? The UN? Philanthropists? And who takes responsibility when something goes wrong? If we cannot agree on how to deal with climate change itself, how on earth do we propose to agree on how to manage engineering our global climate systems?
In the final analysis geo-engineering deals with symptoms rather than causes. Geo-engineering is more about cognitive dissonance than ecological empathy. It certainly is not the blue-sky thinking (if you will excuse the pun) it is projected as. Geo-engineering is more about hubris than reality.
Instead of expanding the green economy - as is already underway in alternative energy, low input manufacture and the zero waste economy - geo-engineering proposes misleading solutions. Writer George Monbiot says these are akin to performing liposuction on an obese patient who should rather eat sensibly and take exercise. Geo-engineering is like many of our solutions, clever at first appearance but with serious hidden consequences.
The most serious consequence of geo-engineering is that it proposes the continuation of “business as usual” through illusory magic bullet fixes. Vast amounts of money and resources are to be directed at the symptoms, not the core problem of anthropogenic global warming. The new shadow economy of carbon trading simply displaces the costs back to the public. Meanwhile, those responsible for the problem profit both ways, first by the activities that cause the problem and then by providing illusory solutions.
Geo-engineering is a problem disguised as a solution. We simply cannot allow the Durban COP17 conference on climate change to be sidetracked by these deceitful and ephemeral solutions without first demonstrating the ability to collectively deal with the underlying problem.
Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org.