Let’s face it: climate change is mankind’s biggest mistake. We’ve known about it for almost a century. The science is clear. And yet we have done nothing. It’s a fucking embarrassment.
Now world leaders are finally making an effort to clean up the mess. But while most of the climate solutions we need already exist, we don’t seem able to bring ourselves to implement them at the pace and scale required.
In short, the world is heating up and we are failing to cool it down. People sent out more CO2 into the atmosphere last year than ever before (er…WTF?).
Understandably, leaders are very scared. Which pushes them to try some pretty stupid and downright dangerous ideas. One of their worst brainwaves is geoengineering – aka playing with God on Earth’s climate. (“Geoengineering” as used here does not refer to carbon removal technologies, which to our knowledge are quite legitimate.)
Some of these suggestions include Lightening clouds, altering ocean chemistry, or shooting particles into the atmosphere to dim the sun’s light—what could go wrong?
Crystals, nozzles and magnets – how can cooling be made more environmentally friendly?
While these suggestions may sound like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi movie, they’re actually remarkably simple and cheapto change the Earth’s climate.
Solar geoengineering is one of the more controversial of these “solutions.” Its most popular derivative, stratospheric aerosol injection, involves shooting dust into the atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth’s surface. The technology was inspired by volcanic clouds, which are known to cool the entire planet for years after a major eruption.
Clouds increase the reflectivity of the earth’s surface. The aim of stratospheric aerosol injection is to reproduce this effect by spraying dust into the upper atmosphere in hopes of cooling the climate. Credit: Woovii/Getty Images
While aerosol injection into the stratosphere could be remarkably effective in halting global warming, it could open a Pandora’s box of problems. According to a recent UN reportIInterference with the Earth’s natural climate could deplete the ozone layer, alter global precipitation patterns and cause severe geopolitical tensions.
While proponents say solar geoengineering would be a short-term measure to combat warming, one was recently published in Scientific American suggests that if politicians decide to shoot dust into the atmosphere, they could become dangerously dependent on it for “centuries or more.”
To get enough dust in the the atmosphere Curbing warming could require tens of thousands of high-altitude flights a year. A sudden halt to this process could cause temperatures to skyrocket, potentially faster than life could adjust, a concept known as “termination shock.”
Then there is the ethical question that a technical solution could take the pressure off politicians and companies to decarbonize as quickly as possible.
Simply put, solar geoengineering could be the equivalent of a solution to climate change.
Despite the risks, the US government last year launched a five-year research program examining ways to reflect more sunlight back into space, setting the stage for further funding for the burgeoning technology.
Billionaires like Bill Gates, George Soros and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz have expressed interest, as have 60 prominent scientists want to conduct small field experiments on solar geoengineering.
There’s even a startup, Make Sunsets, that sells carbon credits up front based on its promise to release sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to curb warming.
US startup Make Sunsets has been evicted from Mexico for conducting unauthorized stratospheric aerosol injection testing. Several MIT Technology Review researchers have condemned Make Sunsets, saying his efforts are “completely premature.”
The precautionary principle – or, for the common man, “when in doubt, leave it out” – is one of the fundamental tenets of making informed environmental decisions, and one we should heed in the future.
A potentially positive step is the EU announced this week a call for talks at the “highest international level” about the risks associated with the possible use of climate geoengineering.
“These technologies pose new risks to people and ecosystems, but could also increase power imbalances between nations, trigger conflicts and raise a variety of ethical, legal, managerial and political issues.” EU officials said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same mindset that created them.
Although the EU takes a precautionary approach, it is not strictly against the technologies and tries to create ‘rules’ for their governance.
Others take a harder line.
In a statement released last year, Frank Biermann of Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development warned that “the risks of solar geoengineering are poorly understood and can never be fully appreciated”.
Biermann is the leader of a group of renowned climate scientists calling for a non-use agreement for solar geoengineering. In other words, a worldwide ban about its development.
“Solar geoengineering research is not the preparation of a Plan B to avoid climate catastrophe, as its proponents argue. Instead, it will merely delay and derail current global climate policies,” he said.
“Furthermore, the current system of international institutions is unable to effectively regulate the use of this technology on a global scale. Solar geoengineering is not a solution.”
I can only agree, professor. By playing god with the climate, not only do we risk making our predicament worse, but we send a dangerous message — that people can just find their way out of their problems instead of tackling them at the root (think). far-reaching cultural, social and political transformation).
As Einstein famously quipped: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that caused them.”