Why Geoengineering the Climate Is Inevitable but Outlandish

Glenn Fay, Jr.
Mar 2, 2020 · 6 min read

Humanity Turns a Blind Eye To a Drawdown

Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Phillippines in 1991 and spewed millions of tons of sunlight-reflecting sulfur dioxide into the air. According to the USGS, it temporarily cooled the planet by one degree. We have come to realize that volcano emission particles can reduce sunlight and cool the planet. And cooling the planet seems like a good alternative to an irreversible climate disaster. So it’s not surprising that inquisitive scientists are toying with the idea that we could reflect sunlight and cool the earth without the help of natural volcanic eruptions.

Photo by Permission, USGS: Mt. Pinatubo, 1991

During the last few years, Harvard physicist David Keith and his colleagues are using a balloon-mounted apparatus to spray small amounts of water vapor, non-toxic limestone dust, and sulfates, 12 miles up into the stratosphere over an area of a hundred yards. Then the balloon backtracks through the sprayed areas and tests how the particles interact, how they distribute themselves, and if and how they reflect light. The testing won’t have any impact on the global temperature or weather but might shed light on whether large-scale solar reflectivity could cool the planet. So far there is no word on the results of these experiments.

More experts believe that humans won’t significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) enough to avoid catastrophic scenarios in the near future. According to some experts, the GHG problem is just too big, and we are too entrenched in carbon-spewing habits to change any time soon. If that is the case, geoengineering our way out of climate change must be an option.

Several big ideas are currently in vogue with advocates of geoengineering. The first idea is to reflect sunlight back into space by launching small mirrors or chemicals into the atmosphere. Another idea is to remove carbon from the oceans, which are apparently at full capacity. The third option is to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Let’s look at each one of these ideas.

Stratospheric Aerosol Engineering

A 2019 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal (PNAS) states that after ten years of research on solar geoengineering, we don’t have enough knowledge to conduct a thorough risk assessment. In that article, MacMartin and Kravitz say, “Solar geoengineering would not affect the climate the same way as reducing greenhouse gas concentrations; it thus poses both physical climate risks and risks arising from societal processes, such as the potential for affecting the commitment to mitigation or the risk of abrupt termination.” While the authors maintain that research on stratospheric aerosol engineering should be continued, they also note that there is no governance in place for the actual implementation of large-scale geoengineering, which would have global impacts.

Figure 1 With Permission from PNAS showing a scenario that solar geoengineering, combined with other factors overshoots temperature targets.

Ocean-Seeding To Promote Algae Growth

Carbon removal in the oceans is another proposed geoengineering solution. Fred Pearce, a writer for Yale Environment 360 says the oceans absorb a lot of CO2 and research is underway to help them absorb even more. Pearce says, “It involves seeding the oceans with iron to stimulate the growth of marine algae. The resulting algal blooms would, the theory goes, soak up CO2 from the water and cause more to be absorbed from the atmosphere.” At first blush, the ocean-seeding theory may seem understandable and plausible.

But any time we mess with an ecosystem as large as the oceans, one can only imagine the things that could go wrong. As Pearce says, “Concerns range from the effects that such blooms of algae could have on the marine food web to uncertainty about whether such local absorption would actually increase the ocean’s total uptake of carbon.”

Carbon Capture, Storage And Utilization

The third popular geoengineering idea is to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) or utilization (CCU) by removing carbon dioxide at points of entry into the atmosphere and either storing it somewhere or chemically reacting it so it is no longer an active greenhouse gas. In 2018, incentives were allocated by Congress to provide subsidies for one particular type of this technology.

Negative Emissions Technologies Graphic With Permission From the National Academy of Sciences

The research shows that CCS facilities are not affordable, scalable, and safe yet. And CCU uses the carbon that is captured to essentially burn again in another fuel, producing more carbon dioxide. It’s not exactly a proposition for clean energy. And there are those who think the logic of subsidizing the production and burning of fossil fuels, which produce carbon dioxide, then subsidizing other companies to remove the harmful carbon from the air doesn’t make sense when we are not subsidizing renewable energy to the same degree. But regardless of whether it is flawed logic or not, if humans don’t take action to drawdown carbon it is only logical that we will turn to these alternatives, which may be more destabilizing and expensive in the long run.

The Opposition To Geoengineering

These artificial hacks have the potential to exacerbate political conflict. A group of scientists, including Andy Parker, et. al., who published an article in Nature is speaking out against solar radiance geoengineering calling it “fraught with risk, outlandish, unsettling, and redolent of science fiction.” They say that while they have no opinion on whether geoengineering should take place, it should only be done once there is thorough research and wide agreement. Parker and the other signatories believe that geoengineering could actually compound the risks of climate change and developing countries need to take the lead. They note that most of the decision making is happening at universities in the “global north” and that many developing southern hemisphere countries, who would surely be impacted have little input.

As Parker et. al. say in the article, “ It would only mask the warming effect of greenhouse gases. Ocean acidification would still pose a threat to marine life if carbon-dioxide emissions were not slashed. Sulfur dioxide might delay ozone regeneration in the stratosphere. And whichever aerosol was used to filter out sunlight, more research would be needed on its impacts on health and the environment.” Furthermore, the question what effects might solar geoengineering have on hurricanes in the Caribbean, flooding in Bangladesh or agriculture in East Africa for example. Parker and his colleagues have created an organization that has teamed up with other international environmental organization to hold workshops and demand that developing countries have decision-making capabilities when it comes to risk and justice.

Aside from the wisdom of moving captured carbon in large-scale carbon dioxide pipelines, and pumping the gas into underground saline aquifers, some research shows other problems, according to another scientific report. that suggests multiple hurdles to CCS deployment including the absence of robust economic incentives or a clear business case for CCS investment to support the additional high capital and operating costs of the whole CCS process.

Fossil fuels’ large subsidies don’t exactly promote our long-term interests.

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Glenn Fay, Jr.

Written by

Author of Vermont’s Ebenezer Allen: Patriot, Commando and Emancipator by Arcadia/The History Press, University of Vermont EdD.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Glenn Fay, Jr.

Written by

Author of Vermont’s Ebenezer Allen: Patriot, Commando and Emancipator by Arcadia/The History Press, University of Vermont EdD.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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