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Geoengineering: preparing for the worst

After decades on the fringe, geoengineering proposals have almost become mainstream in the last couple of years. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A now has a special issue on the topic (free access as of 5 Sept.).

There are plenty of ideas these days for purposefully messing with large-scale Earth systems in the hope of offsetting global warming. The Phil Trans A articles don’t catalogue them, though Stephen Schneider of Stanford touches on many in a great review article. A pair of papers by the University of Edinburgh’s Stephen Salter, NCAR’s John Latham, and their colleagues discuss spraying micron-wide particles of sea water into the air to make clouds whiter so that they reflect more light. Ocean fertilization is defended against 20 years of outcry by Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and Wajih Naqvi of the Indian National Institute of Oceanography. And one from Philip Rasch of NCAR and co-authors deals with sulphate aerosols.

But the journal also gives space to plans for power-plant carbon capture – which in fairness was only recently promoted (or de-promoted) out of the geoengineering category – and one of the lesser-known alternative fuels. And the overall focus is the same philosophical question discussed at a recent EGU meeting: how seriously should we pursue geoengineering, given the dangers of huge side effects?

An essay by the self-described geophysiologist James Lovelock captures those dangers with a blue-ribbon metaphor, comparing would-be geoengineers to pre-1940s doctors operating in “overwhelming ignorance” of the problems they are trying to cure.

But more revealing is the review by Schneider, which encompasses his thirty-plus years of looking warily on geoengineering. In 1992, he recounts, he was on a US National Academy of Science panel that reluctantly agreed to discuss geoengingineering as a last-ditch solution in its climate report – “provided it had enough explicit caveats that the committee could not possibly be interpreted as advocating near-term use of such schemes.”

And now?

It seems that this issue a decade and a half later than the NAS report has, in virtually every paper, echoed the warnings that have been implicit in all responsible essays on geoengineering since … the mid-1970s.

And yet, though the worries haven’t diminished, Schneider joins the other article authors in endorsing R&D on these schemes. Tim Radford in The Guardian today calls them “embarrassed cheerleaders for the technological fix.”

The special issue’s preface sums up the reason: a growing queasy feeling that global policy isn’t reacting fast enough to global emissions, and emergency geo-fixes may become a last hope.

Anna Barnett


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