Even if a technological fix did prove possible is it something we should really think about doing? We've messed with the climate since the industrial revolution and look where it's got usby Bill McGuire / June 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
The idea of hacking the planet to make climate change go away has been around for quite some time. Embraced early on by neocons and the alt-right seeking a solution that would allow the planet to be trashed without consequences, it is becoming increasingly mainstream, with suggested solutions including manipulating cloud patterns and removing carbon from the air.
In fact, the idea has become so normal that Cambridge University recently announced the opening of a research centre, headed-up by former government chief scientist David King, to look into the feasibility and practicality of “geoengineering” ourselves out of the ongoing climate crisis.
But even if a technological fix did prove possible—at least in theory—is it something we should really think about doing? We have, after all, been messing with the climate ever since the wheels of the industrial revolution began to turn, and look where it has got us.
A sticking plaster for the planet
The key point about drafting in technology to tackle climate breakdown is that this is not an alternative to the wholesale greening of society and economy. In other words, it can never be an excuse for business as usual. Simply using technology to cool the planet, without simultaneously slashing greenhouse gas emissions, would set us on the road to catastrophe.
For one thing, it would do nothing to stop the ongoing acidification of the oceans. For another, it would lock-in the need to maintain artificial cooling far into the future. Once established, should the technology fail—for whatever reason—our world could be transformed into a hothouse hell almost overnight.
A techno-fix can never, then, be anything more than a supplementary aid; a sticking plaster to buy time for the planet’s climate to begin to heal. Before it can be used in anger, there needs to be hard evidence that we are serious about slashing our carbon dioxide emissions, which in 2018 reached a record 41.5 billion tonnes.
So far, despite the pledges made at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, there is still no sign of the rate of annual emissions falling and based upon the sloth-like rate of progress it may be quite some time until any change becomes apparent.
The thinking goes that to be certain of keeping the global average temperature rise (since pre-industrial times) below 1.5°C—now widely regarded as the guardrail that provides at least some chance of avoiding the worst of climate breakdown—a little technological tinkering will be needed.
Heads in the clouds
What sort of tinkering, however, remains a matter for debate. Some of the early wild ideas have thankfully been quietly dropped. So, no giant mirrors in orbit to block out the sun. Similarly, the idea of swamping the atmosphere with tiny reflective spheres to do the same job, advanced by Edward teller—’Father of the H-bomb’ and putative inspiration for Dr. Strangelove—has also faded from sight.
Today’s proposals are less wacky and, as a consequence, more likely to be acted upon. Furthermore, they are not exorbitantly expensive—at least compared to the cost of building giant reflectors in orbit.
Current favourites include ‘refreezing’ the poles by spraying seawater into the atmosphere to create brighter clouds able to reflect more sunlight, or loading the atmosphere with sulphur dioxide, which is also effective at blocking incoming solar radiation.
Others look to suck carbon out of the atmosphere either using techniques that separate or ‘scrub’ carbon from the air, or by promoting the blooming of carbon-absorbing plankton in the oceans.
A moral quandary
But there are huge issues outstanding. None of the proposed schemes has been adequately field tested so there has been no opportunity to tease out and understand potential problems.
There has been some computer modelling, and the results have reinforced the need for extreme caution before launching any full-scale geoengineering scheme. In particular, studies reveal that techno-fixes designed to manage the level of incoming solar radiation would likely result in substantially modified rainfall patterns, bringing drought to some parts of the world and torrential rains to others.
This highlights a central moral issue that cannot be sidestepped. If future research and testing build a watertight case for a particular geoengineering scheme benefiting the planet as a whole, but having disastrous consequences for a number of countries, should it go ahead? And who should decide?
Such a call would have to be made by some international forum, but would it require unanimous support or would a simple majority do? And what about public opinion? The chances are that intentional tinkering with an already damaged climate would prove to be hugely unpopular and anathema to many. Would popular feeling count for anything?
Opening a can of worms
And, looking at the bigger picture, what would a ‘repaired’ climate look like anyway? Should we seek to bring carbon levels in the atmosphere down to a pre-industrial 280ppm (parts per million)? If we did, then it might only be a few thousand years before falling temperatures heralded the onset of the next glacial episode. And if we don’t want to see the world of our descendants crushed beneath the ice sheets, what level of atmospheric carbon do we stop at?
With such fundamental questions unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, a strong case can be made for viewing the whole idea of a high-tech sticking plaster for the climate as a distraction. In which case, far better to make a serious fist of slashing greenhouse emissions to ensure that global temperatures remain below the 1.5°C guardrail, and leaving what seems increasingly like a very large can of worms unopened.