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Debate: Geoengineering

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Is geoengineering a good idea?

Background and context

Geo-engineering is the concept of engineering natural systems here on Earth to improve or hold off the effects of global warming. Some examples of these projects include brightening clouds using seawater or sulfur to reflect more solar radiation and heat,
fertilizing algae blooms with iron to absorb more carbon dioxide, and blocking incoming UV rays using an installation of space mirrors. While all of these projects might be able to buy time for humanity to solve its climate challenges, they are also extremely controversial because they may not take into account the complexity of natural systems and could result in a variety of known and unknown consequences. In the United States, Barack Obama’s Climate Advisor has expressed limited support for Geoengineering. His favored method is shooting particles of sulfur into the upper atmosphere to reflect some of the sun’s rays. But he seems wary about using it as a definite solution. Overall, the main question to consider in this public debate is whether the negative outcomes are greater than the outcome if we do nothing. Does the threat of what might happen from the unknowns justify what might be gained? These questions and the primary pros and cons and quotations are considered below.

See Wikipedia: Geoengineering for more background.

Contents

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Efficacy: Can geoengineering effectively fight climate change?

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Pro

  • Geoengineering can effectively fight climate change In the New York Times, Ken Caldeira, of the Global Ecology Department at Stanford writes: "If we could pour a five-gallon bucket's worth of sulfate particles per second into the stratosphere, it might be enough to keep the earth from warming for 50 years. Tossing twice as much up there could protect us into the next century." Other experts say that blocking 2% of the sun's rays from hitting the earth could stop global warming.
  • Geoengineering is one part of larger climate fight Jamais Cascio. "It's Time to Cool the Planet." Wall Street Journal. June 15th, 2009: "let's be clear about one other thing: We will still have to radically reduce carbon emissions, and do so quickly. We will still have to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, and adopt substantially more sustainable agricultural methods. We will still have to deal with the effects of ecosystems damaged by carbon overload. But what geoengineering can do is slow the increase in temperatures, delay potentially catastrophic 'tipping point' events such as a disastrous melting of the Arctic permafrost and give us time to make the changes to our economies and our societies necessary to end the climate disaster. Geoengineering, in other words, is simply a temporary 'stay of execution.' We will still have to work for a pardon."
  • Geoengineering gives time and optimism to climate fight Samuel Thernstrom. "What Role for Geoengineering?" The American. March 2, 2010: "Seen in the proper light, geoengineering is potentially the key to unlock the mitigation puzzle—a way of controlling climate risks during the many decades that it will take to transform the global energy system. Asking nations to spend trillions to avoid damages (mostly many) decades in the future while doing little to address warming’s more immediate effects is a difficult task. But if geoengineering can stave off short- and medium-term harms while giving time for a long-term solution to take effect, the result is a coherent policy proposal that may enjoy broader public support."
  • Many geoengineering solutions cut atmospheric greenhouse gases. These approaches address the root cause of climate change: greenhouse gases. They include: Fertilizing oceans to raise the amount of carbon-consuming algae, reforestation, biofuels combined with carbon sequestration and burying the resulting carbon mass, as well as large building-size air filters to draw C02 from the atmosphere. This responds to concerns by skeptics that geoengineering does not address the root cause of climate change - rising C02 and greenhouse levels. Certainly, these carbon-absorbing approaches do.


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Con

  • Geoengineering only masks problem of CO2 emissions Graeme Wood. "Re-Engineering the Earth." The Atlantic. September 12th, 2010: "neither sulfur-aerosol injection nor an armada of cloud whiteners nor an array of space-shades would do much to reduce carbon-dioxide levels. As long as carbon emissions remain constant, the atmosphere will fill with more and more greenhouse gases. Blocking the sun does nothing to stop the buildup. It is not even like fighting obesity with liposuction: it’s like fighting obesity with a corset, and a diet of lard and doughnuts. Should the corset ever come off, the flab would burst out as if the corset had never been there at all. For this reason, nearly every climate scientist who spoke with me unhesitatingly advocated cutting carbon emissions over geo-engineering."
  • Geoengineering will reduce incentive to cut emissions Francelino Grando, a senior government official from Brazil, worried that geoengineering might be seen as a solution instead of a stop-gap: "It may give people the impression that we don’t have to worry about climate change because we can solve it through engineering."[1]
  • Better ways to fight climate change than geoengineering Lisa Hymas. "We need birth control, not geoengineering." The Ghink Chronicle. Grist. April 6th, 2010: "Most green groups don't like to talk about all this -- population has become the third rail of the environmental community (more on that in a future post). Technologists don't like to either -- they'd rather talk about traveling-wave nuclear reactors and CO2-sucking machines and space sunshades. We do need to explore and invest in cleantech options; climate change is serious enough that it requires all of our best efforts in all arenas. But it may be that many of the technologies with the most potential for averting climate change already exist -- the Pill, the condom, the IUD. We just need to spread them far and wide. Baby stroller crossed-out in greenGINK: green inclinations, no kidsBetter still, providing contraception to women who lack it is one of the most cost-effective ways to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Each $7 spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a metric ton, while achieving that same reduction with the leading low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32, according to a recent study by the London School of Economics [PDF], commissioned by the Optimum Population Trust."


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Risks: Are there major risks/unintended consequences with geoengineering?

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Pro

  • Risks of geoengineering smaller than risks of climate change. If we do not undertake geoengineering, the effects will be much worse than anything that could happen if we did work with it and possibly even made mistakes. The tests that have already been carried out have been very successful with limited or no unintended consequences. Examples include solar radiation projects (such as using pale-colored roofs to reflect the sun’s light, and doing the same to pavement). Other test projects such as the iron fertilization of algae blooms have gone well, with little or no consequences.
  • Geoengineering is temporary intervention to buy time. Gwynne Dyer, author of Climate Wars: "Holding the temperature down is an intervention. It’s an intervention that’s intended to be temporary. It wins you time to get your emissions down. The goal is still to get the emissions down. And many other goals that you and I would agree upon are attainable, but only with time. And we don’t have the time. We are going to be—the last report out of the Hadley Center suggested, on current track, we are four degrees Celsius hotter, average global temperature, by 2060. It’s only fifty years."[2]
  • Geoengineering can be gradually tested and implemented. Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution for Science, thinks we should test the technology gradually, comparing it to a knob on a device: "You can turn it gently or violently. The more gently it gets turned, the less disruptive the changes will be. Environmentally, the least risky thing to do is to slowly scale up small field experiments. But politically that’s the riskiest thing to do."[3]
  • Geoengineering risks can be tested, corrected, avoided. Very rarely, one of these projects goes bad, and even when they do, much is learned and the problem is soon fixed. Out of mistakes, a lot of astounding new ideas are born, and with these ideas, genial solutions are thought of. This has been shown throughout human history. Medicine is a good example, where plenty of mistakes and risks are present in the testing and production of new medicines, and yet nobody doubts the overall benefits of medicine. The same applies to the research, testing, and implementation of geoengineering.
  • Many geoengineering approaches are harmless like painting roofs. One of the simplest ways to combat Climate Change is by painting houses white. As we all know, the color white reflects the sun, sending more solar radiation back into space instead of allowing it to remain in the Earth's atmosphere where it can heat the climate. There are no negative effects to the climate by painting a roof a different color. If employed in a large enough area, it could reflect enough solar rays to cool the surrounding area a few degrees. This, and many other "geoengineering" approaches like reforestation, are innocuous and yet are often bound up in the irrational fears that often surround the field of geoengineering as a whole.
  • Technology advances help long-term safety of geoengineering. Advances in human technology and wealth can make solutions like geoengineering manageable in the long-term and safe. This is not human hubris; it is a natural consequence of human advancement.


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Con

  • Geoengineering may result in unexpected consequences Alan Robock. "Has the time come for geoengineering?" The Bulletin. August 14th, 2008: "Scientists cannot possibly account for all of the complex climate interactions or predict all of the impacts of geoengineering. Climate models are improving, but scientists are discovering that climate is changing more rapidly than they predicted, for example, the surprising and unprecedented extent to which Arctic sea ice melted during the summer of 2007. Scientists may never have enough confidence that their theories will predict how well geoengineering systems can work. With so much at stake, there is reason to worry about what we don’t know."
  • Human error could cause devastating impacts with geoengineering. Geoengineering proposals often start with the best of intentions and with no negative foreseeable outcomes, but human error could result in the deadliest of consequences. Robert Jackson, director of Duke University’s Center on Global Change warns, 'Playing with the Earth’s climate is a dangerous game with unclear rules, we need more direct ways to tackle global warming, including energy efficiency, reduced consumption, and investment in renewable energy sources.'
  • Consequences of geoengineering could be worse than climate change Graeme Wood. "Re-Engineering the Earth." The Atlantic. September 12th, 2010: "as with nearly every geo-engineering plan, there are substantial drawbacks to the gas-the-planet strategy. Opponents say it might produce acid rain and decimate plant and fish life. Perhaps more disturbing, it’s likely to trigger radical shifts in the climate that would hit the globe unevenly. 'Plausibly, 6 billion people would benefit and 1 billion would be hurt,' says Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers climate-change policy expert. The billion negatively affected would include many in Africa, who would, perversely, live in a climate even hotter and drier than before. In India, rainfall levels might severely decline; the monsoons rely on temperature differences between the Asian landmass and the ocean, and sulfur aerosols could diminish those differences substantially."
  • The effects of geoengineering may be irreversible. There are no assurances that the effects of geoengineering can be reversed at all. If something goes wrong, or the effects are greater than intended, it's quite possible that there is no way to reverse them.
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Morality: Is geoengineering moral?

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Pro

  • World is already geoengineering Earth on mass scale Brandon Keim. "6 Ways We’re Already Geoengineering Earth." Wired. March 23, 2010: "Scientists and policymakers are meeting this week to discuss whether geoengineering to fight climate change can be safe in the future, but make no mistake about it: We’re already geoengineering Earth on a massive scale. From diverting a third of Earth’s available fresh water to planting and grazing two-fifths of its land surface, humankind has fiddled with the knobs of the Holocene, that 10,000-year period of climate stability that birthed civilization." And, if we are already geoengineering the Earth in negative ways, why not do it in ways to counteract the harm we've already inflicted?
  • Geoengineering solutions often mimic natural mechanisms. These include adding sulfur to the atmosphere (similar to volcanoes) and iron fertilization of algae blooms in the ocean (mimics same effects of sand storms carrying iron out to see off of West African coastlines). For moralists, this should provide some comfort. These are not purely man-made inventions; but often are inspired by nature itself.


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Con

  • Geoengineering comes from human hubris; let mother nature work Indian environmentalist, scientist, philosopher and eco-feminist, Vandana Shiva: "it is the idea of being able to engineer our lives on this very fragile and complex and interrelated and interconnected planet that’s created the mess we are in. It’s an engineering paradigm that created the fossil fuel age, that gave us climate change. And Einstein warned us and said you can’t solve problems with the same mindset that created them. Geoengineering is trying to solve the problems with the same old mindset of controlling nature. And the phrase that was used, of cheating—let’s cheat—you can’t cheat nature. That’s something people should recognize by now. There is no cheating possible. Eventually, the laws of Gaia determine the final outcome."[4]


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Researching it: Is geoengineering important to research, keep on table?

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Pro

David Keith, a director in the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy, said in September of 2010: "Ignorance is not a sensible strategy. It's better to know something about this tool, both whether it works and whether it doesn't work."[5]
  • Many green orgs and scientists support geoengineering option. Some research companies and organizations, such as NERC (National Environmental Research Council) are in favor and support research behind geo-engineering. National programs, such as the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) view geo-engineering as a viable way to deal with Climate Change. (NERC- [6], EPA- [7])


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Con

  • Geoengineering tests/consequences distract from other problems. There is the possibility of devastating long term effects if natural cycles or processes are interrupted or thrown off by geoengineering techniques. If the balance of nature is upset, it could result in natural disasters such as drought, famine, or extreme weather situations brought on by sudden changes in the composition of the atmosphere. All natural disasters cause disruption in the political system of a country. Money has to be expended to try to minimize the loss of life, research has to be paid for to find out what caused the disaster and what could prevent it from happening in the future, and politicians will have conflicting and ever changing ideas about what should be done and to what extent, and who should be doing it. While the government is scrambling to solve these problems, other important issues are pushed aside in its wake.


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Costs: Would geoengineering be affordable?

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Pro

  • Geoengineering will create jobs. Many people will be needed to participate in the field. Jobs could be as diverse as geoengineering itself, testing methods and implicating them. And, with the economy currently in a recession, this new field could really create new jobs in a world where there are fewer every day. New jobs and innovations could lead to more new fields and more jobs.


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Con

  • Geoengineering is too costly Many geoengineering approaches are exorbitantly expensive. Launching mirrors in to space, or Spraying ocean water into low flying clouds, or putting seeds in to clouds to manipulate the weather, and spraying sulfer into the air are all incredibly complicated, resource and technologically intensive, and ultimately expensive. Launching mirrors would be the most costly, spraying ocean water is the least expensive.
  • The effects of geoengineering would be expensive. Manipulating the weather might have odd effects, and letting sulfur into the air would cause acid rain which would hurt the forests, animals, and people alike, all which have major and real economic costs.


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For-profit: Is there any risk of companies exploiting it?

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Pro

  • Experts and scientists would conduct geoengineering. With a Geo-engineering solution having such lasting implications, only top scientists and engineers would be dedicated to the task of changing the world in such a radical way. For-profit companies would not be given permits to carry it out, unless it was done in a heavily confined and regulated manner.
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Con

  • Risky to involve private companies in geoengineering Eli Kintisch’s new book, Hack the Planet: "One problem with geoengineering research that scientist Ken Caldeira has pointed out to me is that there are a lot of private companies who are involved in this research, who are out to do research but also to create a business around selling carbon credits. Is this a field that should be dominated by private enterprises?"[8]


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Conflict: Can geoengineering avoid causing conflict?

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Pro

  • International community will accept necessity of geoengineering. Without cuts to CO2 emissions, Geo-engineering is the last option. Many experts warn that if CO2 emissions aren't cut drastically, then Geo-engineering will be the last option. If it is the last and only option, the international implications would be that if nothing is done, the Earth would be doomed, so it is very likely that, internationally, Geo-engineering solutions would be accepted widely.
  • Many geoengineering approaches are innocuous/non-controversial. For instance, planting artificial trees that act like a vacuum - sucking the CO2 out of the air - could be one of the solutions that are used internationally. This, painting the tops of rooftops white, and other innocuous solutions are entirely uncontroversial and will not cause international tensions of any kind.


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Con

  • Knowbody has the right to decide on geoengineering. It’s a worldwide decision. What if a country doesn’t agree or doesn’t think it’s a good idea? This is such an intractable problem, it probably makes the most sense to avoid geoengineering all together.
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Pro/con sources

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Pro

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See also

External links and resources

  • Demirbas, A. “Biofuels from Agricultural Biomass.” Energy Sources 31.17 (2009): 1573-1582.
  • Crookes. R.J. “Comparative bio-fuel performance in internal combustion engines.” Biomass & Bioenergy 30 (2006): 461-468.
  • United States. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis. “Gross Domestic Product: Third Quarter 2009.” Gross Domestic Product (GDP). (10 December 2009).
  • John Block, Clayton Yeutter and Mike Espy. "Ethanol: Fueling the Future in Rural America." McClatchy Newspapers 17 Jun 2009: n.p. SIRS Researcher. Web. 02 December 2009.

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