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Jan Lee headshot

Can Geoengineering Really Fix Climate Change?

Words by Jan Lee

Everyone seems to be wracking their brains about how to combat climate change these days. From the conservatively pragmatic to the impressively ambitious, there seem to be no end of theories on what will ultimately slow the heating of the atmosphere. While most of us have already heard of, and probably implemented, solutions like less driving and paring down on landfill refuse, there’s a whole lot of other ideas on the table these days that take a more imaginative tact.

One concept that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has proposed is called geoengineering: a fascinating collection of brainstorms that would mostly be relegated to the extreme of impressively ambitious goals. One approach that you probably heard about a few years ago involved wrapping Greenland in a huge blanket to reduce glacier melt.

While the success of this idea is still being measured, there have been lots of other ideas proposed as well. They include:

  • Creating giant solar buffers, or shields

  • Pumping spurts of aerosols into the atmosphere to cool the temp.

  • Erecting giant stand-alone cloud seeders on the surface of the ocean

  • Mining the earth’s vast storage of silicate rocks

The interesting thing is that the IPCC has actually thrown its weight behind some of the ideas. One proposal the IPCC has entertained involves carbon capture methods that essentially block the carbon from being re-emitted to the atmosphere. The captured carbon could then be stored in capsules underground.

It’s no surprise that this type of geoeneneering has received a fair amount of push back in recent years, as well. Critics argue that using unproven science to engineer the atmosphere comes with its own unknown risks – risks that could make the problem worse, rather than better.

Aerosols, Scientific American pointed out way back in 2008, could actually worsen droughts, not improve them. And remember that phenomena that Canadian environmentalists discovered years ago called acid rain? Tampering with the content of our atmosphere could change what falls to the earth.

But what’s really interesting is that both sides of this argument are pretty much airing the same criticisms of the other: Neither side feels putting all the eggs in the other one’s basket is a good idea. Both are afraid that human inertia will win out over the other side’s ability to reverse climate change. Those who feel that renewable energy sources, reducing carbon emissions and other human-directed methods is the answer aren’t sure they want to put the fate of the planet in the hands of industries driven by novel design. Those who support geoengineering aren’t sure humans have the motivation or the organization to drastically change the way we live. And both sides predict disaster if something isn’t done quickly.

And unfortunately, both may right.

There’s tremendous risk in innovation. As University of Washington Professor Stephen Gardiner points out, ethics have to be at the forefront of geoengineering concepts. Political inertia has affected our ability to implement global policies, but using geoengineering as an “intervention” could still herald the same effect.
“We might try and adopt a quick technological fix but one that holds the worst impacts for a few decades without much attention to what happens after that,” said Gardiner in an interview with the Guardian.

Ethics is also at the core of what controls our ability to reshape the way we live. It’s far harder to implement global policies that cut profits from carbon sources than it is to try to come up with a quick fix that someone else designs.
But as scientists have pointed out, we’re fast reaching the age of consequences when revamping human nature may not have the impact we would hope. It has taken generations to put better cars on the road, despite the fact that we have had the technology for decades.

And sitting in an apartment in Vancouver, one of the greenest cities in the world, with green bylaws and landfill reduction policies in force and a mountain of challenges clearly still being met, it seems abundantly clear that human nature, like technology works or fails based on the ethical policies that drive the innovation.

Geoengineering can work if those innovations are driven by the same policy that drives success in how we handle carbon emissions and our garbage: ethical, sustainable management, not profit margins and Nobel Prize-sized notoriety.

And that’s the catch. Irrespective of the answer applied, it all comes back to how we look at our relationship to the future. If Mother Nature has taught us anything, it’s the fact that there are no quick fixes. Stopping climate change requires making sure that the technology we investigate and policies we choose  will be sustainable not only for us, but for future generations.

 Image credit: NASA Goddard Flight Photostream

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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