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Geoengineering is Not the Answer to Climate Change

Because nature doesn't always behave the same in a lab, test tube or computer program as it does in the real world, scientists and engineers have come up with ideas that didn't turn out as expected.

DDT was considered a panacea for a range of insect pest issues, from controlling disease to helping farmers. But we didn't understand bioaccumulation back then—toxins concentrating up the food chain, risking the health and survival of animals from birds to humans. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, seemed so terrific we put them in everything from aerosol cans to refrigerators. Then we learned they damage the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful solar radiation.


Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, studied five geoengineering schemes and concluded they're “either relatively ineffective with limited warming reductions, or they have potentially severe side effects and cannot be stopped without causing rapid climate change." Photo credit: James Jordan/Creative Commons

These unintended consequences come partly from our tendency to view things in isolation, without understanding how all nature is interconnected. We're now facing the most serious unintended consequence ever: climate change from burning fossil fuels. Some proposed solutions may also result in unforeseen outcomes.

Oil, gas and coal are miraculous substances—energy absorbed from the sun by plants and animals hundreds of millions of years ago, retained after they died and concentrated as the decaying life became buried deeper into the Earth. Burning them to harness and release this energy opened up possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors. We could create machines and technologies to reduce our toil, heat and light our homes, build modern cities for growing populations and provide accessible transport for greater mobility and freedom. And because the stuff seemed so plentiful and easy to obtain, we could build vehicles and roads for everyone—big cars that used lots of gas—so that enormous profits would fuel prosperous, consumer-driven societies.

We knew fairly early that pollution affected human health, but that didn't seem insurmountable. We just needed to improve fuel efficiency and create better pollution-control standards. That reduced rather than eliminated the problem and only partly addressed an issue that appears to have caught us off-guard: the limited availability of these fuels. But the trade-offs seemed worthwhile.

Then, for the past few decades, a catastrophic consequence of our profligate use of fossil fuels has loomed. Burning them has released excessive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a thick, heat-trapping blanket. Along with our destruction of natural carbon-storing environments, such as forests and wetlands, this has steadily increased global average temperatures, causing climate change.

We're now faced with ever-increasing extreme weather-related events and phenomena such as ocean acidification, which affects myriad marine life, from shellfish to corals to plankton. The latter produce oxygen and are at the very foundation of the food chain.

Had we addressed the problem from the outset, we could have solutions in place. We could have found ways to burn less fossil fuel without massively disrupting our economies and ways of life. But we've become addicted to the lavish benefits that fossil fuels have offered, and the wealth and power they've provided to industrialists and governments. And so there's been a concerted effort to stall or avoid corrective action, with industry paying front groups, “experts" and governments to deny or downplay the problem.

Now that climate change has become undeniable, with consequences getting worse daily, many experts are eyeing solutions. Some are touting massive technological fixes, such as dumping large amounts of iron filings into the seas to facilitate carbon absorption, pumping nutrient-rich cold waters from the ocean depths to the surface, building giant reflectors to bounce sunlight back into space and irrigating vast deserts.

But we're still running up against those pesky unintended consequences. Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, studied five geoengineering schemes and concluded they're “either relatively ineffective with limited warming reductions, or they have potentially severe side effects and cannot be stopped without causing rapid climate change." That's partly because we don't fully understand climate and weather systems and their interactions.

That doesn't mean we should rule out geoengineering. Climate change is so serious that we'll need to marshal everything we have to confront it, and some methods appear to be more benign than others. But geoengineering isn't the solution. And it's no excuse to go on wastefully burning fossil fuels. We must conserve energy and find ways to quickly shift to cleaner sources.

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In an interview with Breitbart News on Sunday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke blamed "radical environmentalists" for the wildfires that have devastated California in recent weeks, The Huffington Post reported.

"I will lay this on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years. And you know what? This is on them," he said in the interview.

You can listen to the whole thing here:

The remarks come as California has suffered the deadliest blaze in the state's history. The death toll from the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California, has now risen to 79. Around 1,000 people are still listed as missing, and the fire is now 70 percent contained, according to an Associated Press report Monday.

California Governor Jerry Brown blamed climate change in a statement made last weekend.

"Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change, and those who deny that definitely are contributing to the tragedies that we are witnessing and will continue to witness," Brown said.

Regardless, Zinke has remained consistent in pointing the finger at forest management. His current criticisms echo his remarks following other fires this August, in which he said the increasingly frequent and violent blazes were the result of inadequate forest management, and not climate change. He continued in that vein during Sunday's interview:

"In many cases, it's these radical environmentalists who want nature to take its course. We have dead and dying timber. We can manage it using best science, best practices. But to let this devastation go on year after year after year is unacceptable, it's not going to happen. The president is absolutely engaged."

President Donald Trump has indeed vehemently blamed forest mismanagement ever since the recent batch of fires broke out, even threatening at one point to withhold federal funding if the forests weren't managed properly. During a visit to California Saturday to survey damage, Trump brought up forest management again, suggesting that the problem in California was that the forests were not raked enough.

"You look at other countries where they do it differently, and it's a whole different story," he said, as CNN reported. "I was with the president of Finland, and he said: 'We have a much different [sic] ..., we're a forest nation.' And they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem," he added.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, however, told a Finnish newspaper he did not recall suggesting raking to Trump.

"I mentioned [to] him that Finland is a land covered by forests and we also have a good monitoring system and network," he said.

Finnish people have taken to Twitter to poke fun at the U.S. President's statement using the hashtag "Raking America Great Again."

Despite Trump and Zinke's criticisms, the fact remains that the federal government controls almost 60 percent of the forests in California while the state controls only three percent. Paradise was surrounded by federal, not state, forests. Further, the fires in Southern California spread in suburban and urban areas, The Huffington Post reported.

Some think the emphasis put by Zinke and Trump on forest management is not about preventing fires at all but rather an attempt to justify opening more public forests to private logging interests.

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with land managers, private landowners, university staff, and the media about federal forestry and land management at Boise State University on June 2, 2017. USDA photo by Lance Cheung

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