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Climate Change

Geoengineering — Can We Science Our Way Out Of The Mess We Have Made?

Geoengineering is beginning to attract serious attention from researchers and the organizations that fund them. Can humans really “science their way out” of the gathering climate crisis?

Recent polling data shows Americans who identify as Republicans are not all that concerned about an overheating planet. For them, it’s all about keeping black and brown people from stealing their jobs, preventing women from having control of their own bodies, and stopping rapists and murders from outside our borders getting in. When it comes to energy policy, they favor the Drill, Baby, Drill plan and they have little regard for climate scientists, who they know in their hearts are just money grubbing charlatans in white lab coats masquerading as scientists to grab lucrative research grant money.

How to explain then their fervent embrace of the notion that somehow, someway, when humanity is on the verge of extinction, science will swoop in and save us from ourselves? Suddenly, the scientists they abhor and villifhy today will be our salvation? That’s nuts but there are lots of folks who believe it, just as there are lots of folks who believe there are genetic differences between members of the human family that make some humans superior to others. If you thought Jesse Owens exploded that myth forever at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, think again. It is just as strong today as it ever was.

One of the problems climate scientists face is the dizzying complexity of the atmosphere and oceans. The variable are enormous, which makes creating models that can predict future trends accurately an Herculean task. The best they can do is posit a range of scenarios. If this happens, then that happens. But if “this” turns out to be larger or smaller than expected, the end result changes significantly. That uncertainty gives critics the opportunity to claim climate science is all guesswork with no basis in fact, so it’s safe to ignore it and just keep on keepin’ on the way we always have. The problem with taking that “wait and see” approach is, by the time we know for sure, it will be too late to do anything about it and the human race will become largely extinct.

The idea of geoengineering is not new. We know that massive volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa in August of 1883 can spew enough dust and gas into the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight falling on the entire planet. Less sunlight means lower global temperatures. Atmospheric records suggest the eruption of Krakatoa lowered average global temperatures by 1.2º C for a perid of 5 years. Oddly enough, that is nearly the same amount average global temperatures have risen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So, if global heating is a problem, just recreate another Krakatoa and everything will be fine. We can go back to burning every molecule of coal, oil and gas we can find and corporations can continue to report higher quarterly profits in perpetuity. Problem solved, right?

Ummm, actually no. Fiddling with the atmosphere has ripple effects on rainfall, storms, desertification, and forest fires. What’s good for Peoria may be a disaster for Pretoria. And remember how complex the global climate system is? What if injecting a tons of sulfur dioxide over Kansas actually turns Europe into a dust bowl? The concept of geoengineering may be appealing — simply add stuff to the atmosphere to control global temperatures the way you adjust the thermostat in your living room. Easy peasy, except your living room is just one of billions of other living rooms all around the world and they are all interconnected.

Despite the dangers, interest in geoengineering is growing and the field is attracting research funds and investments. “We’re facing an existential threat and we need to look at all the options,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School, tells the New York Times. “I liken geoengineering to chemotherapy for the planet: If all else is failing, you try it.”


On Wednesday, a nonprofit organization called SilverLining said it is contributing $3 million in research grants to Cornell University, the University of Washington, Rutgers University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and others. Those groups will use the money to research how high in the atmosphere to inject sunlight-reflecting aerosols, what the right size particles are to inject into clouds to make them brighter, and what the effects of geoengineering will be on agriculture.

Kelly Wanser, executive director of SilverLining, tells the New York Times the world is running out of time and protecting people requires trying to understand the consequences of climate intervention. The purpose of what her organization calls its Safe Climate Research Initiative is “to try to bring the highest caliber people to look at these questions.” she says.

Last December, Congress gave NOAA $4 million to research the technology. Part of that effort is also to collect data that will detect whether other countries are using geoengineering secretly. “Decarbonizing is necessary but going to take 20 years or more,” says Chris Sacca, co-founder of Lowercarbon Capital, which calls itself “A Fund for Planet Healing Technologies and Research.” It is one of the founders of SilverLining. “If we don’t explore climate interventions like sunlight reflection now, we are surrendering countless lives, species, and ecosystems to heat,” Sacca tells the Times.

Douglas MacMartin, a researcher in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, says one way to cool the Earth is by injecting aerosols into the upper layer of the atmosphere where they will reflect sunlight back into space. “We know with 100 percent certainty that we can cool the planet,” he said recently in an interview. What we don’t know, however, is what those high level aerosols will do to weather and climate patterns. “What does it do to the strength of hurricanes? What does it do to agriculture yields? What does it do to the risk of forest fires?” McMartin asks, hoping his research will provide some answers.  “Depending on where you put it, you will have different effects on the monsoon in Asia,” he said. “You will have different effects on Arctic sea ice.

Sarah Doherty is the program manager for the Marine Cloud Brightening project at the University of Washington, which is one of the beneficiaries of funding from SilverLining. “The whole idea of the research we’re doing,” she tells the New York Times, “is to make sure you don’t go out and inadvertently change things in a way that’s going to cause damage.”

Fraught With Danger

Geoengineering is fraught with danger. Anything humanity creates can be used either for the good of all people or as an offensive weapon. Russia loves to meddle in elections. What would stop if from parking a cloud over the American Midwest to destroy US agriculture? Rich countries have always disparaged poor countries. Does anyone think the US would hesitate for one minute to protect its own interests even if doing so would harm the citizens of Bangladesh or Madagascar? The only way to manage geoengineering properly would be to put it under the control of a world government, an idea that is anathema to many.

We humans already have the means to control global heating — stop burning fossil fuels. But we refuse to go that route. It’s too hard and it costs too much money, the reactionaries proclaim. People are predisposed to take the easy way out, even if it puts their ability to continue as a species at risk. Geoengineering, even it if works to perfection, will cost far more than transitioning to renewable energy and electrifying everything.

Those who say, “Oh, we will science our way out of the mess we have made,” are hopelessly naive. The only way we are going to save our human community is by stopping the pollution of our planet with the refuse from burning fossil fuels. There is also a dark underside to the geoengineering debate. It is really little more than finding a way to give fossil fuel companies a pass for the rampant destruction they have caused and to embolden them to keep on doing what they have been doing all along — destroying the planet for the sake of short term profit.

Fixing a broken capitalist system so social responsibility is part of every financial calculus may be the best way to meet the challenge of an overheating planet head on and solve it for all eternity — or at least until the sun implodes in a few billion years. Perhaps we should give that a try before we start playing God with the atmosphere that makes life on Earth possible.

Geoengineering is nothing more than a confession that humanity is incapable of living in a sustainable fashion. As Ruth Bird, former chief justice of the California Supreme Court once observed, “We have probed the earth, excavated it, burned it, ripped things from it, buried things in it, chopped down its forests, leveled its hills, muddied its waters, and dirtied its air. That does not fit my definition of a good tenant. If we were here on a month-to-month basis, we would have been evicted long ago.”

In fact, if we can’t learn to control ourselves and stop befouling our home, we will be evicted and a lot sooner than many people think possible. In a recent article, we talked about Ruth Reck, a climate scientist who once worked for General Motors. She predicted carbon emissions would have a negative impact on the environment but said she and her colleagues believed the results would not become manifest for 800 years or more. Instead, they are happening now, less than 50 years after her findings were made public. And yet we continue along as if nothing has changed and we can behave as we always have forever. William Shakespeare may have said it best when he wrote, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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