Solar geoengineering 101 -- Image courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists

NOAA Calls For Urgent Geoengineering Investigation

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

It is now abundantly clear that humans are incapable of reacting in any meaningful way to slow the pace of global heating. Despite all the warnings from scientists, the Pope, the Secretary General of the United Nations, IPCC, and the World Meteorological Society, carbon and methane emissions continue to rise and the Earth continues to get hotter. We know by now the only solution is to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels, and yet at CERAWeek in Houston this month, fossil fuel executives were whooping it up over the prospect of making hundreds of billions in future profits from sales of their death-dealing products. The rampant ignorance of humans has convinced many authorities that geoengineering — while far from the ideal situation — may be the least worst strategy for keeping the Earth habitable for humans and millions of other species.

Richard Spinrad, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said this week his organization is starting to estimate the effects of some of the likely techniques for geoengineering, including those involving the oceans. “My own belief is that we need to get a better understanding of what the impacts are. I suspect some aspects of geoengineering are going to be an important component of the solution to reducing global warming, and all of the impacts of global climate change, like ocean acidification.”

According to The Guardian, potential geoengineering techniques include seeding the oceans with iron to absorb more carbon dioxide or spraying water from the oceans into low-level clouds to reflect some of the sun’s radiation. Spinrad said understanding the potential impact of geoengineering on the oceans was vital. “If we were to undertake an effort in some things like iron fertilization [of the oceans], what are the consequence to the ecosystem of doing that? [Also important is] building good predictive models … and supporting decision-makers.”

NOAA is focusing on the potential for the oceans to sequester CO2, a process known as marine carbon dioxide removal. Its researchers are also working closely with universities and government scientists in the UK on the potential for the shutdown of the systems driving the Gulf Stream ocean currents. Evidence has recently been presented that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation may be rapidly weaken in a matter of decades rather than centuries due to the impact of warming oceans and melting ice. Such a shutdown could be catastrophic for Europe and other regions.

“We should be concerned enough to keep an eye on what the science is telling us. AMOC is not going to shut down tomorrow, but systems like AMOC are inherently noisy. By that I mean, don’t just look at how it’s changed from 2023 to 2024. We need to observe these systems over a long period of time. As an oceanographer, I’m concerned enough to say this should be a priority for sustained observations. And I think it’s in the next three to five years we should be getting the best idea of whether we’re seeing a real trend,” he said.

Spinrad defended NOAA against the threat that some of the $6 billion the agency is receiving from the Inflation Reduction Act might be rescinded by a new administration if there is one in 2025. Whatever the outcome of the presidential election this November, in which the climate is likely to be a bitterly divisive issue, strong climate science would be needed to protect the security of US citizens, he said.

“These missions [that NOAA pursues] are not inherently political by any means,” he told a small group of journalists at the US embassy in London this week. “They are affecting all aspects of security —  the traditional interpretations, such as national security, and homeland security but also food security, energy security, water security, economic security. These are not issues that need to be addressed on a political schedule, they are issues that every American citizen, industry and community assumes their taxes will support, regardless of who’s in the administration.” That may sound like whistling past the graveyard to some readers.

Spinrad pointed out that US citizens were increasingly conscious of the effects of the climate crisis. “They’re certainly feeling it in their pocketbook,” he said. “We’re all paying for the effects of fires that are now hitting. We saw 28 billion dollar disasters in the US last year, more than we’ve ever seen before. We’re all paying for that. I’m paying for that when I pay my insurance. Consequently, I think the American public is getting it, and understanding it. And that map of billion dollar disasters, it does not align with the political map in any way.”

No One Is Prepared For The Impact Of Geoengineering

David Bookbinder is a longtime climate attorney who previously served as chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club. A report by E&E News says he and other climate experts fear that regulators aren’t ready for what’s coming. “I am more concerned about this than anything else,” Bookbinder said recently. Climate solutions “are not going to get deployed in time, which is only going to create more of a demand for something like this.”

As the climate continues to heat up and humanity feels the scorching, sometimes deadly, consequences, there will be more calls for geoengineering but meddling with the climate is contentious, and efforts to regulate — or even study — geoengineering on a large scale have proven difficult both domestically and internationally.

Currently, a US company or citizen with plans to inject aerosols into the atmosphere is only required to fill out a one-page form with the Commerce Department 10 days before doing so. That’s not enough, say academics and researchers who are urging the government to expand their rules governing private geoengineering efforts such as those by Make Sunsets, a start-up that attempted to inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere using weather balloons in Mexico last year. “There’s no governance on the international level, national governance, there’s no state governance, there’s nothing,” said Bookbinder.

Bookbinder says he is agnostic on whether geoengineering technologies should be deployed, but he’s worried it could be done without proper oversight and that the United States and international governments aren’t prepared to keep it in check. There are significant questions about the scientific and geopolitical implications of injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere to modify the climate. Potential risks could include damage to the ozone or changes to weather patterns that may have negative impacts on other countries.

Geoengineering also doesn’t address other harms associated with producing and burning fossil fuels, such as local pollution and ocean acidification. A proposal to study solar geoengineering was withdrawn from consideration at a U.N. Environment Assembly earlier this year after nations failed to reach agreement over how to approach the contentious issue.

He and several other concerned people filed a petition with NOAA recently that said, “As climate change accelerates and its damages mount, the investigation and testing of some forms of climate intervention technologies appear imminent and inevitable. While some of these activities will likely take place with federal oversight and funding, the field overall lacks transparency and oversight.”

The petition asks the government to update its regulations to “expand and clarify their application” to private solar radiation modification activities. NOAA’s current regulations, the petitioners wrote, fail to require all the information needed to “assess the potential impacts and risks” of geoengineering activities.

Amid the broader controversy surrounding geoengineering, Harvard University announced last week that it has ended a solar radiation modification research project known as ScoPEx, which is short for “stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment,” after years of setbacks and opposition from critics.

But the idea still has plenty of interest, and experts say it’s gaining in traction as the world appears on pace to exceed its climate targets. Earlier this year, the Environmental Defense Fund hosted a meeting of climate scientists, activists, and philanthropists to discuss solar geoengineering. Many of the attendees said they would prefer that guidelines for solar geoengineering research be established by a federal scientific coordinating body like the U.S. Global Change Research Program, E&E News reported.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a report last June laying out a research plan for solar radiation modification. The Biden administration stressed that the report came in response to a directive from Congress and that the administration “remains focused on reducing emissions, increasing resilience, advancing environmental justice, and achieving true energy security.” There are “no plans underway to establish a comprehensive research program focused on solar radiation modification,” the White House wrote last year.

Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution!

The Takeaway

Geoengineering, by its very nature, is an admission that humans are unable or unwilling to modify their behavior to save themselves from extinction. For fifty years, we have been advised that the world was heating up and we did nothing about it. When fires devastated Australia a few years ago, they were tossed off as the work of careless campers. When fires tore through California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Texas, and Canada recently, they were attributed to faulty electrical transmission lines. That was partially true, but no one wanted to delve more deeply into the causes to ask why the trees and undergrowth under transmission lines were so flammable.

We just continue on buying our humongous SUVs and pickup trucks because we can. We continue to insist on private passenger cars even though they are choking our roads and our cities. We continue to consume plastics in record amounts even though we know that microplastics are now in our drinking water, breast milk, and the the placentas of pregnant women. The Alabama Supreme Court works itself into a lather over frozen embryos, but never spares a thought for the environment those embryos will be born into should they actually become children. We are consumed by sports betting as the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat become more and more dangerous to human health.

Of course we will need to rely on geoengineering because nothing else will save us from ourselves. Ignorance and a slavish addiction to 24/7 pleasure stimuli will be our undoing. But at least the fossil fuel companies will make record profits as the Earth continues to overheat. For most, that is reason enough to continue doing what we have always done, because nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of profits. Not even extinction. We are willing to go on believing that somehow we will “science our way” out of the mess we made, even though we have been conditioned to mistrust scientists.

There is one way to address the problem in a meaningful way — include the price of climate destruction in the cost of fossil fuels. Once gasoline hits $20 a gallon and industry sees the price of methane gas quadruple, change will happen and pretty damn quick. But of course, that idea is a non-starter. Better to let taxpayers pony up the trillions of dollars that geoengineering will cost rather than take a penny of profit away from Exxon and its peers.

The truth of that statement tells you all you need to know about whether humans will act to address an overheating planet before geoengineering becomes the last resort to prevent a sixth mass extinction event that will wipe humans from the face of the Earth.


Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Video


Advertisement
 
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Steve Hanley

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." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5484 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley