Engineered Solutions

A recent report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the impacts of global climate change on the planet are likely to be “severe, pervasive and irreversible,” raising questions regarding the correct course of action to preserve our environment. With a such a dire prediction, many may be tempted to throw their support behind dramatic measures, fearing that more gradual processes (emissions abatement, increased taxation, fuel substitution, etc.) may not do enough to combat the effects of climate change. These concerns have led to the consideration of different, more immediate geoengineering processes to mitigate the warming effects of climate change. However, experts and activists alike have started warning against these practices.

Geoengineering, also referred to as climate engineering, involves the manipulation of the earth’s global climate systems to attempt to create an outcome more favorable to human life. The goal is essentially to decrease the negative environmental effects resulting from climate change through the manipulation of the earth’s natural geological properties.

One often-discussed means of geoengineering is carbon capture and sequestration. Carbon sequestration is the capturing of carbon dioxide produced from power generation or industrial processes and storing it somewhere other than the atmosphere, usually underground. This idea has grown in popularity as a means to attempt to mitigate climate change as it would not require a decrease in emissions or switch in power generation technologies. Some countries have already adopted this strategy; the UK recently announced that along with the construction of a new coal power plant, they will install a sequestration program which would store carbon emissions in an undersea rock formation. And even the Working Group 3 of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change accepted carbon capture and sequestration technologies as potential means to combat global warming. However, opponents object to the lack of applied testing this technology has had, as well as the energy intensity required to compress carbon dioxide and pump it underground.

Another form of geoengineering is iron fertilization of the oceans. Essentially, large amounts of iron sulfate are dumped into the ocean, stimulating the growth of photosynthetic plankton. These plankton absorb carbon dioxide, sequestering it on the bottom of the ocean after they die. This strategy has been actively tested: 200,000 pounds of iron sulfate has been dumped into an area of the northern Pacific Ocean for tests in July 2012. Despite this testing there are a number of issues with this strategy. First, the tests were conducted in international waters without any governmental approval which has generated a great deal of ethical controversy. If an unanticipated negative effect were to occur to the climate, the people of multiple nations may suffer consequences from the actions of an independent group. Second, though tests did record increased Phytoplankton blooms, there has been skepticism regarding how long the carbon would stay sequestered, how large and sustained these blooms are, and whether an increase in iron in the ocean would adversely affect ocean ecosystems.

The amount of uncertainty associated with implementing geoengineering efforts like these has sparked a great deal of concern within the scientific community, especially given that any unanticipated effects of climate manipulation have the potential to be irreversible. Additionally, a wealthy individual or company could begin testing or implementing geoengineering efforts on their own accord. Any unanticipated negative side-effects would not be contained to those acting on their own, but instead would harm people and regions not involved in this testing. Finally, geoengineering would not incentivize decreasing carbon emissions or conducting environmentally harmful activities. Rather than requiring people to change their lifestyle or focus on alternative forms of energy, geoengineering hopes to create the “silver bullet” to fix our current problems.

Former Vice President and environmental activist Al Gore has decried geoengineering efforts as “insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme.”  But the most striking of the objections is a study published by David P. Keller, Ellias Y. Feng and Andreas Oschlies in Nature, which concluded that when multiple geoengineering efforts such as afforestation, artificial ocean upwelling, ocean iron fertilization, ocean alkalinization and solar radiation management are all applied in a high-carbon dioxide scenario in an earth simulation model (either together or separately), all only produce reductions in global warming of less that 8% while also producing side effects which may be harmful to the climate.

As the effects of global climate change mount and are felt by more people, there may be increased pressure from lobbying groups and governments to pursue geoengineering initiatives. While the idea of a “silver bullet” to solve our current crises with no cost to anyone is tempting, there are too many unknowns and the question of how to mitigate the effects of climate change is far from answered.

Image Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

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