They’re very seductive – proposed solutions to climate disruption that don’t involve carbon fees or changing our modern comforts and habits. Geoengineering – altering the planet instead of altering people’s lives – includes ideas such as creating giant algae blooms in the oceans to remove carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and seeding the atmosphere with sulfur to reflect sunlight. Some proposals even suggest putting mirrors in space. The New York Times just wrote about a more earthbound proposal to use a mineral called olivine to absorb CO2.
At first blush, these might seem like EcoOptimistic approaches: they would supposedly solve the issue of global warming while not harming the economy. (Note that EcoOptimism holds that we can improve the economy while improving the environment.) However, there are some faults with this line of thinking.
Geoengineering comes in two forms: carbon absorption and solar radiation management. Sulfur seeding and mirrors are the latter while olivine and algae blooms are the former. But so is tree planting, so the line between geoengineering and mitigation can be fuzzy.
Tree planting aside, geoengineering is, at its core, incredibly hubristic. It says that we can take the environment that we’ve defiled and fix it by altering the delicate balance of natural systems. The risks are obvious; we don’t know how much sulfur or algae or mirrors or whatever would be needed and miscalculations could be disastrous. The idea goes completely against the precautionary principle, which says “an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.” Even if we did know amounts, we couldn’t accurately predict either the side effects or local climate impacts. Which leads, of course, to geopolitical questions.
Large scale geoengineering also builds upon the idea that technology will always come to our rescue. This, too, is problematic as it gives us cover to simply continue business as usual and not deal with the core problems.
From what is perhaps an EcoPessimistic point of view, the best rationalization for geoengineering research is that we’d have a worst case, last resort plan. If we pass that notorious 2o centigrade rise, if we hit runaway global warming, we would have emergency actions available.
But does the pursuit of geoengineering distract from or negate the need for mitigation and adaptation? The Times article tackles this question and makes some interesting points. First, it seems unlikely that the U.S., given the number of politicians who don’t even believe climate change is happening, will support geoengineering. Second — and a more subtle point – as the riskiness of geoengineering becomes more apparent, that may actually increase interest in less drastic paths. “If people realize that the dangers of climate change are such that geoengineering is being considered, they may work harder to avoid the need for it.”
That would be a happy, if indirect, result: geoengineering research as a means to a different end. It just seems unfortunate that we’d need to waste money and attention on geoengineering in order to get where we should be going in the first place.