Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering

Climate

Worldwatch Institute

Geoengineering, by definition, is any deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract human-caused climate change. As the planet continues to warm, the potential solutions offered by geoengineering are tempting, and several serious projects are actively being pursued.

Image credit: Hughhunt via Creative Commons license

In the latest edition of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, Simon Nicholson, assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University, examines the pros and cons of such an approach to responding to climate change.

The technological prospects for geoengineering are vast, and fall into two main camps:

Solar Radiation Management (SRM)

SRM is a tactic that aims to reflect solar radiation back into space so that it is not absorbed by the atmosphere. The intent is to counteract heat-trapping gases by scattering or deflecting some percentage of incoming solar radiation by, for instance, streaming sulfate particles into the stratosphere or launching sunshades into space. 

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)

CDR is an approach that involves drawing large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, and storing it where it won’t cause future harm. Land-based ideas have included carbon dioxide scrubbers that would pull large quantities of carbon dioxide straight from the air, or growing forms of biomass and then reducing it to charcoal, which can be buried. Ocean-based ideas mostly involve the cultivation of plankton, which take in carbon from the atmosphere and bring it to the bottom of the ocean with them when they die.

“SRM strategies are receiving the bulk of the attention,” says Nicholson. “It is hard to see a CDR scheme coming online quickly enough or being deployed at a large enough scale to make a real dent in the atmospheric carbon load.”

Yet Nicholson warns that solar radiation management is not any kind of real answer to climate change.

“At best, SRM can reduce the planet’s fever for a period,” he says. “Talk of geoengineering is gaining traction because it has the appearance of an easy, sacrifice-free approach to tackling climate change. It is critically important to recognize that there are sacrifices, some obvious and some harder to spot, associated with the bulk of geoengineering schemes.”

In his chapter, “The Promises and Perils of Geoengineering,” Nicholson outlines some of the consequences that may arise if geoengineering is pursued:

Climate Catastrophes: The most obvious concern is the potential for causing catastrophic and irreparable damage. Even with computer models and endless calculations, there are still potential unforeseen problems that may occur with any such large-scale plan, due to our still limited understanding of the world’s climate system.

Political Dilemmas: Large-scale climate engineering may curtail the will to develop other forms of climate-protecting actions. If changes in the climate affect various parts of the world, the question of who ought to control the thermostat also raises issues. Less influential countries may be left to suffer as world powers dictate climate behavior to their advantage. Militaries may be able to start using the weather as their greatest weapon of mass destruction.

Rogue Actors: In October 2012, an American took a ship off the shore of Canada and dumped about 100 tons of iron sulfates into the Pacific Ocean, in hopes of creating a carbon sink. As threats about rising temperatures increase, it is possible that more individuals and organizations will risk taking the climate’s condition into their own hands.

With outlined principles and public decision making, however, geoengineering does have the potential to become one method to battle climate change. Some scientists have suggested a “soft-geoengineering” approach, in which changes we make are still widespread, but are reversible and predictable. Examples include painting roofs white to reflect sunlight, or building up carbon in soil and vegetation.

“The need is for a middle ground,” says Nicholson. “Not geoengineering as a techno-fix but rather geoengineering as one small part of an effort to steer the world to a state of rightness and fitness in ecological and social terms.”

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

——–

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Food Tank

By Danielle Nierenberg and Alonso Diaz

With record high unemployment, a reeling global economy, and concerns of food shortages, the world as we know it is changing. But even as these shifts expose inequities in the health and food systems, many experts hope that the current moment offers an opportunity to build a new and more sustainable food system.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Brian J. Love and Julie Rieland

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the U.S. recycling industry. Waste sources, quantities and destinations are all in flux, and shutdowns have devastated an industry that was already struggling.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

By Kris Gunnars, BSc

Unhealthy foods play a primary role in many people gaining weight and developing chronic health conditions, more now than ever before.

Read More Show Less
A man pushes his mother in a wheelchair down Ocean Drive in South Beach, Miami on May 19, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. reported more than 55,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, in a sign that the outbreak is not letting up as the Fourth of July weekend kicks off.

Read More Show Less
To better understand how people influence the overall health of dolphins, Oklahoma State University's Unmanned Systems Research Institute is developing a drone to collect samples from the spray that comes from their blowholes. Ken Y. / CC by 2.0

By Jason Bruck

Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.

Read More Show Less

Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus

On July 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial bill prohibiting local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks. jacqueline / CC by 2.0

By Kelli McGrane

Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks.

Read More Show Less