CP: Should Research Into Climate Engineering Be Allowed?

Anjali Gopal - 2A Nanotechnology
Posted on: November 17, 2010

Climate engineering has generated a lot of interest because of its ‘quick fix’ approach to global warming. However, for all the promises of ‘low cost’ and ‘fast results’ that climate engineering offers, it might be nothing more than sticking attractive duct tape onto the problem of climate change.

There are two areas of climate engineering that have come under much scrutiny by media: the first is ‘carbon dioxide removal’ (CDR). To remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, scientists are planning to capture CO2 and pump it deep into the ocean. Some like to think of it as ‘planetary liposuction’. Of the two, CDR is the preferred climate engineering technique because it does tackle the root cause of climate change. However, CDR is less popular because despite the large-scale removal, it might take decades to observe any noticeable effect on the climate.

The second technique is ‘solar radiation management’ (SRM), in which small aerosol particles would be dispersed into the upper stratosphere to scatter sunlight away from the earth. In 1991, Mt. Pinatubo in the Phillipines produced an effect akin to SRM, when its volcanic eruption sent 20 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. The average temperature of the earth decreased by about 0.50C. However, recall that global warming has also increased average worldwide temperatures on a similar scale of magnitude: from the 1950s, average temperatures of the earth has increased by about one degree. So, it should seem that the Mt. Pinatubo effect must have stabilized the Earth’s temperatures somewhat. The reality was that Mt. Pinatubo’s sulfur emissions were barely a blip on the climate change radar: the momentary decrease of the earth’s mean temperature has been quickly eroded away by industry’s churning out of greenhouse gases. Granted, climate engineering might be more large-scale, and more carefully controlled, and thus have a more lasting effect than Mt. Pinatubo’s spewing of sulfur dioxide. Nevertheless, many researchers believe that despite the initial drop in mean temperature that climate engineering offers, without active efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the temperature might rebound quickly.

This is where the main problem lies: because climate engineering is 100 times cheaper than research on carbon dioxide emission cuts, industry might see that as an ‘alternative’ solution to greenhouse gases. It’s not. Therefore, channelling money and resources to fuel climate engineering research, when the same funds could be used for research in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is both wasteful and dangerous.

Furthermore, SRM may also have a host of unpredicted, and often unpredictable, consequences. Any meddling with solar radiation—even in a localized area—could have large scale effects around the globe. For instance, some scientists have suggested that studies on polar testing should be confined to the arctic—but even injecting sulfur particles in the Arctic could affect (besides Canada, of course) climates as distant as those in Africa and Asia, disastrously altering weather patterns and monsoon seasons, much like the way that injection of sulfur particles in tropical areas would. Even injection of carbon dioxide into the oceans is dangerous—it can cause effects such as ocean acidification. The oceans are already under a tremendous amount of stress because of current climate change problems; fixing the atmosphere by destroying the oceans is not the answer. Moreover, the climate models that scientists are using to predict ‘natural’ climate change have been inaccurate many times—do we really want scientists using these same models as guidelines in their quest for ‘forced’ climate change?

Now, suppose, just for a second, that despite all of the various scientific reasons, and despite the fact that the odds are really stacked against us, scientists and engineers decided to go ahead with climate engineering anyway. Suppose we give them the benefit of the doubt, and that the technology and procedure went off without a hitch. Now there is an even bigger issue: who is in charge of the technology? SRM is fast and ‘inexpensive’. As a result, many organizations—not even a country, but a small state or region—might have the resources to buy, or create, such a technology and take matters of the earth’s climate into their own hands. The economics of such technology is a whole new can of worms, and things could go wrong even with the best of intentions. For instance, despite the claims for ‘cheap results’, ‘cheap’ is still a relative term … we’re still talking about billions of dollars worth of funding. With a project as volatile and large-scale as the one that climate engineering supporters hope to achieve, combined with the amount of money involved, people will be less likely to admit when things go askew. And when playing Bob-the-Builder with the earth’s climate, ‘askew’ is not a relative term.

Climate engineering has too many uncertainties, and too many associated risks, to be considered a serious solution to climate change and global warming. Climate engineering is just another method for rich industries and wealthy governments to find quick-and-dirty patch job to a hole that the same industries and governments have spent fifty years digging. We should take a page out of our mistake-ridden history books and realize now is not the time for seductive new technologies that have the potential to go drastically wrong. Now is the time to look for lasting, and long-range solutions that works with the mould of the Earth’s natural climate, not against it. And just think: if our governments can’t even buckle down on its industries’ carbon emissions, do we really want to entrust to them the fate of our Earth’s climate?