P: Should Research Into Climate Engineering Be Allowed?

Alison Lee - 2A Nanotechnology
Posted on: November 17, 2010

Climate engineering, like most forms of science in their infancy, is a somewhat obscure topic of study that conceives ways to quickly and significantly normalize our climate in the event of a “climate change emergency.”  As climate change science continues to advance and our impacts on global temperatures continue to show, the field of climate engineering will inevitably mature to larger-scale experiments. Skeptics of climate engineering say that engineering the climate is tempting fate, but there are a number of misconceptions that make it seem far more perturbing than it actually is.

Firstly, there have been many proposed climate engineering ideas, but only a handful of them have been taken seriously.  Unfortunately, some of the more radical ones tend to make for the most exciting news, especially when an organization wants to incite public fear and mistrust in climate scientists.  Mostly bad ideas, such as seeding the ocean with iron to dissolve more CO2, laying reflective material over large parts of the northern tundra, or pumping deep cool ocean water to the surface to prevent hurricanes, are sensationalized to the point of sounding insane. It’s a good thing that those ideas make the public uneasy because trying to alter the climate is an enormous responsibility, but the majority climate engineers are far less radical and understand this fact.

In the current field of climate engineering, the most attention is directed at two ideas: solar radiation management (SRM) and direct air capture (DAC). SRM aims to change the earth’s albedo: the amount of radiation that is reflected back into space. This is done by suspending aerosol particles in the stratosphere with reflective properties. What makes this promising is that these effects are fast and drastic compared to the warming effects of greenhouse gases (GHG’s). DAC is a more gradual approach that focuses on GHG remediation. GHG’s such as CO2 are scrubbed from the air with a chemical solution and then the carbon is isolated and (most commonly) sequestered. SRM and DAC are both very large-scale operations, however, no climate engineering method is about to be ready to use soon. Until more support is given to this research, we cannot know how powerful climate engineering might be.

The second reason that climate engineering is not as scary as it seems is that humans have been altering weather patterns for some time now. It’s common knowledge that the Chinese government seeded clouds with chemicals to cause rain and reduce pollution in time for the Beijing 2010 Olympics. A lesser-known application is in military combat, where cloud seeding is done to influence battlefield conditions. However, cloud seeding is weather modification, not climate engineering. It is important not to confuse something that changes the weather for personal means with something that aims to control the climate if it ever becomes dangerously unstable.

Speaking of controlling the climate, in our Post-Industrial era alone, humans have certainly produced enough emissions and altered enough land surfaces to change global climate patterns. It can be said that this is “accidental” climate engineering. If we’ve been inadvertently modifying our climate for decades, then it is certainly possible for us to modify it on purpose. You may still ask: but if we don’t fully understand how we’re changing the climate, how are we supposed to change it some more? Of course there is no clear answer, but the underlying point isn’t that we must abandon climate engineering because it’s too complex; the point is that – yes – we are changing the climate. And we know it. No, that’s not a solution, but it’s a realization that it reversing our climate impacts could technically be done. Sure climate engineering is a dangerous line to walk, but if it’s possible then you’re guaranteed that someone will try it.

It’s just as important to invest in climate engineering research to have working technology available as it is to prevent the misuse of faulty technology developed by unregulated organizations. The latter could have disastrous effects on the climate. Aerosols in the atmosphere for SRM purposes are very effective, but they also incite large temperature increases when they fall out of the stratosphere. Furthermore, a large-scale experiment might inject large doses of chemicals into the air, which in turn might damage an ecosystem or human population. We definitely want many independent climate engineering studies on a small scale right now, rather than underground large-scale disasters in the future.

A current major road block in climate engineering is investors who fear that developing mitigation technologies will weaken the sense of urgency to reduce emissions. If they invest in climate engineering, it’s like saying that we won’t be able to prevent a climate crisis by changing our behaviour, so we might as well not try to cut emissions at all. Companies might start to use climate engineering to emit more and still meet emissions caps and the public might fall back into complacency. The problem with this attitude is that it assumes that climate engineering technology is in final development stages. It isn’t, and if it’s used before then because there’s no research data to contradict it, then who knows what price we’ll pay.

Climate engineering is engineering on a global scale. You cannot simply ban it and expect nations and scientists everywhere to comply. Any attempts to ban it would just push the research underground. The reality is that, as more and more scientists study how human activity impacts the climate, the more they believe it’s possible to alter it on purpose. So from this, do we move in a direction where chemicals are covertly injected into the atmosphere in non-peer-reviewed experiments, or do we want to move in a direction where scientists can debate openly and research data is public domain? It’s time to bring climate engineering out of the dark and take it seriously because, even if it is never needed, the knowledge gained from researching it is certainly worth staying informed about.