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Geoengineering is Not the Answer to Climate Change

Climate

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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An alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, as seen here in Christmas Valley, South Lake Tahoe, California on Feb. 15, 2020. jcookfisher / CC BY 2.0

California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.

The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.

On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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