A Radical Climate Solution Goes Mainstream
I honestly had never heard of geoengineering before reading this article, but this gives a sort of primer on the topic. Essentially, a medical equivalent would be - treat the symptom, but not the disease:
Geoengineering takes two principal forms. One involves increasing the planet’s reflectivity in some way, so that less sunlight warms the earth and temperatures drop. This approach can be as simple as Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s proposal to paint roofs white (although that would barely make a dent in global warming) or as complex as replicating the effects of a volcano by shooting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. It can be done rather inexpensively — some experts say a sulfur dioxide injection would cost under 3 cents per ton of carbon negated, compared to the $10- to $30-per-ton pricetag that comprehensive climate legislation would likely impose — but it’s only a patch: Carbon levels would continue to rise, and if geoengineering efforts stopped, temperatures would shoot up.
The other form involves sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, potentially by adding iron to the oceans to encourage carbon-absorbing algae blooms or by pulling carbon out of the air and sending it deep underground. This approach would actually reduce our carbon levels and could avoid some of the ethical issues of reflectivity engineering, but it’s likely to be much more expensive and slower to take effect, and it presents its own host of practical concerns.
Such as what encouraging algae blooms would do to ocean ecosystems, etc., etc.
In either case, nearly all climate scientists agree, geoengineering should not be regarded as a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but rather a backup plan in case other efforts fail to prevent a climate crisis. Many hope that geoengineering theories remain just theories: There are far too many unknowns, and after all it was our manipulation of the planet that led to global warming in the first place. But with temperatures continuing to rise and the prospects for cutting carbon emissions uncertain — particularly after the failure of last December’s international climate conference in Copenhagen — some argue that it would be foolish not to explore our options.
“One of the greatest misapprehensions about the climate crisis is the notion that we can fix all this simply by cutting emissions quickly,” writes Goodell. “We can’t. Even if we cut CO2 pollution to zero tomorrow, the amount of CO2 we have already pumped into the atmosphere will ensure that the climate will remain warm for centuries.”
Some conservatives, though, have latched on to the idea:
…But a scientific consensus has yet to translate into a political one. As many liberal environmentalists have sought to avoid debate on the issue — “for fear that talking about it would reduce the pressure for cutting emissions,” according to Keith — some Republicans have signed onto the notion of geoengineering, creating an unlikely union between climate scientists and conservatives who often put little stock in what climate scientists have to say.
“It’s definitely an alliance of strange bedfellows,” Caldeira told TWI.
For conservatives who oppose efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, geoengineering provides an opportunity to shift the debate over global warming from its causes to its effects — from carbon levels to rising temperatures. This serves multiple purposes: It allows some of them to maintain their argument that global warming is caused by changing solar patterns rather than human activity, and it creates an opportunity to control climate change without placing limits on polluting industries.
“Conservatives can use it to bolster arguments they’ve made all along,” said Kintisch, “but I don’t think in the end, we’re going to be able to study this if it’s a conservative or liberal issue. If that happens, it just won’t go anywhere.”
If republicans are latching on to this idea only highlights the party’s priority on business to an almost absurd level. Politicians like Rand Paul are quite willing to put business ahead of civil rights, the environment (think BP oil spill), global climate, health insurance reform, wall street regulation, etc., etc. (ad nauseum). And those ideas are being embraced by elected officials and parts of the electorate. In a lot of ways, it’s quite disturbing, but somewhat understandable after years of preaching “trickle down economic theory.”
I, for one, look forward to the day when the GOP once again advocates for the people first and foremost…
Still, even most advocates of geoengineering research would prefer not to see their ideas put into action. “I hope that we never launch particles into the stratosphere, dump iron into the oceans, or brighten clouds,” Goodell writes in his book. “I hope that the whole notion of geoengineering looks in retrospect exactly how it looks at first glance: like a bad sci-fi novel writ large.”
However, the day may be approaching when we need to…