The failure of world leaders to reach key agreements at COP27 has spurred efforts by scientists to develop radical methods to limit global warming.
Geoengineering is “one of the most controversial and consequential tactics against climate change to date,” said Daily Beast science writer Tony Ho Tran, and refers to “technologies and innovations that can be used to artificially alter the Earth’s climate”.
Countries around the world, including the United States, are exploring different forms of geoengineering. The White House last month announced a five-year research plan to explore the management of solar radiation.
What is geoengineering?
Geoengineering “sounds futuristic,” wrote Robert Litan for Foreign Affairs. But the basic concept has been around since 1965, when then-US President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisers “suggested that some sort of tinkering with the mechanics of the planet might be necessary.”
Since then, this tinkering has included developing methods to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fertilizing the ocean to stimulate phytoplankton growth. Other projects range from influencing the weather to reflecting solar heat.
The concept of geoengineering is becoming more mainstream “as the rate and destruction of extreme weather events appear to be accelerating beyond even some of the most pessimistic predictions,” Litan said. “Geoengineering might finally have its moment.”
The United States is studying a geoengineering technique that “essentially involves spraying fine aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from Earth,” Ho Tran told The Daily Beast. Although it “sounds a bit bonkers,” he wrote, the world has already witnessed “unintentional management of solar radiation.” The eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1816 caused temperatures to drop by up to 3°C in Europe and North America that summer.
Last week, Unesco organized a round table on scientific advances and ethical challenges of climate engineering during the COP27. The UN agency indicated that arguments were “increasingly advanced to consider other actions to counter the heating effect of greenhouse gases”.
“The examination of such methods, however, raises a host of concerns and ethical questions,” added Unesco.
Why is this controversial?
Countries around the world are “increasingly using technology to alter atmospheric, ocean and ice conditions to improve the weather to their advantage or reduce global warming,” said Tracy Raczek, a former Climate Advisor to the UN Secretary General. But in an article for London-based think tank Chatham House, Raczek warned that “the results of these interventions can cross borders, and what may be good for one country may not be good for its neighbours”.
“This is not a hypothetical problem,” Raczek wrote. Iran has accused Israel of stealing its water through cloud seeding, and China’s success in artificially altering the weather over some of its cities has alarmed India and other neighboring countries.
Experts say more research is needed on many forms of geoengineering. David Keith, director of Harvard University’s solar geoengineering research programme, told the BBC’s Discovery podcast that “no one doubts” global temperatures could be lowered by spraying substances into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. But a question mark hangs over the potential side effects and risks.
Former BP chief John Browne, now chairman of climate growth venture capital firm BeyondNetZero, has described geoengineering for climate change as “Plan C”. This approach is “undesirable, is fraught with risk and does not need to be done immediately”, he told the Financial Times (FT). “But it deserves more thought and consideration.”
Can he save the planet?
Browne fears that neither reducing emissions nor mitigating climate change is enough in the fight against climate change, because they generate “long-term, unquantifiable and indirect returns”. Geoengineering therefore represents our greatest asset for a sustainable future, he argued in the FT, although “it will take at least a decade to establish the scientific and bureaucratic institutions necessary to govern this activity”.
The biggest opponents of geoengineering point to problems associated with methods such as releasing sulfur into the atmosphere to form clouds.
But “air pollution deaths from added sulfur in the air would be more than offset by the decline in extreme heat deaths, which would be ten to 100 times greater,” Harvard’s Keith wrote for the New Yorker. Geoengineering is also “cheap and works fast,” he said, adding, “If I were asked which method could reduce mid-century temperatures with the least environmental risk, I would say geo-engineering. engineering”.
This sentiment was echoed by science journalist and astrophysicist Graham Phillips in the Sydney Morning Herald. Geoengineering methods such as spraying sulfur into the sky “seem insane”, he said.
“But the voice for exploring them has grown steadily, and serious scientific research is starting to be done on this earthly tinkering – because not tinkering can be even more foolish,” Phillips concluded.
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