By Claire Bekker
We know that climate change has enormous destructive potential. It’s been repeatedly established by climate scientists that an increase of two to four degrees Celsius will lead to mass migration and relocations (“climate refugees”), altered growing seasons, high economic costs, and a disproportional effect on impoverished and low-lying countries . So far our solutions to climate change have been unsatisfactory. Many countries have promised to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (all except the United States agreed to the Paris Climate Accord), but they are only willing to do so as long as it doesn’t put them at an economic disadvantage. But could there be a easy fix to climate change? A cheap, efficient alternative that could reverse the effects of global warming? That’s what geoengineering promises.
Geoengineering (also known as climate engineering) is large-scale intervention affecting Earth’s natural processes intended to combat climate change . Most techniques suggested so far are focused on solar radiation management (reflecting solar energy back into space) and carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. Sulfate aerosols, a form of solar radiation management, provide an inexpensive, efficient solution to the greenhouse effect. Like those released from volcanic eruptions, sulfate particles reflect sunlight and have a cooling effect on the atmosphere . According to researchers, one ton of sulfur dioxide could counteract the warming effects of 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide. The total cost to return the planet to its pre-industrial temperature would be $10 billion per year, which is very feasible considering the financial resources of all the countries in the world . Even a single country with sufficient resources could tackle climate change on its own.
Yet geoengineering also raises important ethical and environmental concerns. Should a single country or organization be entrusted with the power to change the entire planet’s atmosphere? How can we accurately the predict the effects of geoengineering? What are the side effects? While there haven’t been any legislative proposals yet regarding geoengineering, scientists are tackling the environmental challenges. Since researchers cannot conduct experiments on the entire atmosphere, they rely on models to predict the effects of sulfur dioxide injections into the atmosphere. Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and Cornell University developed a specialized algorithm that varies sulfur dioxide emissions to evenly cool the atmosphere . Previous research identified potential effects of geoengineering but this new approach identifies a specific objective and develops models to achieve it. For instance, the researchers of the NCAR study focused on equal distribution of cooling across the atmosphere and limiting global temperatures to predicted 2020 levels until the end of the century . However, most models of geoengineering, including sulfur dioxide injections into the stratosphere, do not solve other issues associated with climate change, such as ocean acidification. Unfortunately, it could create its own problems as well. Aerosol injection could reduce the ozone layer and increase exposure to ultraviolet radiation, change weather patterns, and disrupt agriculture . We would also be relying on human infrastructure to maintain our climate, which is a risk in itself.
As in the study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, geoengineering models assume “business-as-usual” in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. Thus, many politicians have interpreted geoengineering as an easy fix to climate change that will not require environmental regulations and cutting emissions. Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, once referred to climate change as “just an engineering problem” . This misconception can lead to complacency about climate change. If it is only a matter of engineering, then individuals and countries feel less of an obligation to take comprehensive climate action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is important to understand that geoengineering, while promising, is not a panacea. It should not be our only defense against climate change. We know what is at stake and should not be lulled into a false sense of safety.
 Snyder-Beattie, A. (2015, May 15). Geoengineering is fast and cheap but not key to halting climate change. Retrieved November 22, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/may/15/geoengineering-climate-change-greenhouse-gases
 What is Geoengineering? (2017). Retrieved November 22, 2017, from http://www.geoengineering.ox.ac.uk/what-is-geoengineering/what-is-geoengineering/
 New approach to geoengineering simulation is significant step forward. (2017, November 7). Retrieved November 22, 2017, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171107150706.htm
 Connolly, K. (2017, October 14). Geoengineering is not a quick fix for climate change, experts warn Trump. Retrieved November 22, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/14/geoengineering-is-not-a-quick-fix-for-climate-change-experts-warn-trump