Geoengineering: A climatic ‘Frankenstein’?

Some scientists believe schemes like sending particles into the air to block the sun’s light could stop climate change.

Snowman Performance Against Global Warming
Geoengineering can "radically change" ecosystems and the long-term effects are "difficult to predict" [Reuters]

Doha, Qatar – The proposals often seem like science fiction: Attempting to simulate the effects of volcanos to block the sun’s rays, dumping loads of iron sulphate into oceans, and sending hot air balloons high into the stratosphere to spray aerosol chemicals in an attempt to cool the planet.

Welcome to the whacky world of geoengineering. As political leaders enter another round of climate change negotiations from November 26 to December 7 in Qatar, the concept of humans, or nation states, unilaterally trying to alter the environment is gaining traction among some scientists and policymakers.

Despite 17 high-profile international summits aimed at combatting climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen 48 per cent since the first Earth Summit in 1992, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Some scientists believe the fight to keep world temperatures from rising less than two degrees Celsius – the rate needed to avoid a feedback loop known as “runaway climate change” – has already been lost.

“I don’t see the international community doing anything substantive to reduce emissions,” Ken Caldeira, a climate expert with the Carnegie Institution for Science, told Al Jazeera. “If something really bad starts happening, the solar geoenginering approaches are the only game in town that can do things within a few years.”

Is it too late?

Global carbon dioxide emissions rose 3 per cent to 34 billion tonnes in 2011, according to a recent EU report, undermining the goal of limiting average global temperature rises.

If humans have made the climate warmer with our actions, we should also have the technology to cool it down, proponents believe.

“Geoengineering should be seen … as a way to fill the gap between a desired technology target and what can actually be achieved given all the hurdles,” Tom Wigley, an environmental scientist at the University of East Anglia in the UK, told Al Jazeera. He says it could be a stop-gap measure to stem the possibility of disastrous climate change, until humans can develop new technologies to produce clean energy.

John Holdren, science adviser to US President Barack Obama, supports further research into geoengineering.

Normally broken down into two broad categories, geoengineering includes solar radiation management (SRM) – that aims to reduce incoming heat from the sun – and carbon dioxide removal, often considered less controversial, to take existing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

But idea of countries or companies taking it upon themselves to alter the climate raises plenty of scientific and moral questions. Some environmentalists liken the concept to “Frankenstein” as humans try to re-design life-sustaining ecosystems with potentially dangerous consequences.

“There have been various attempts to modify weather,” Damon Matthews, a professor of geography at Canada’s Concordia University who contributed to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “During the 2008 Olympics, China tried to avoid rainfall through climate modifications.

“In the past, there have been small scale attempts to modify the climate,” Matthews told Al Jazeera. “But there is no historical analogy for the things people are talking about now.”

‘Fertilising’ the ocean

The largest geoengineering experiment to date, according to reports, happened in July in the waters off Canada’s Pacific coast. Californian Russ George dumped iron sulphate into the ocean, triggering a plankton bloom covering up to 10,000 square kilometers. The technique, known as ocean fetilisation, was designed to absorb carbon dioxide, potentially netting the businessman lucrative carbon credits under an emissions trading scheme.

“Various private firms have picked up these plans as potential for-profit ventures,” Matthews said.

Local indigenous people initially backed the project as they believed they were signing onto a plan to enhance salmon stocks. Dependent on fish and other marine life for food, officials from the Haidia First Nation have said they felt cheated by George and his geoengineering scheme.

Climate change is already costing the world economy more than $1.2 trillion per year  [Al Jazeera]

Such projects can “radically change” ocean ecosystems, Matthews said and the effects are “difficult to predict”.

Past attempts by humans to modify the balance of ecosystems haven’t always worked out well. 

While there is no formal international convention on geoengineering, the plankton plan should have been regulated under the London Convention governing ocean pollution, Todd Sanford, a climate specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Al Jazeera.

“The Convention on Biological Diversity adopted a moratorium on geoengineering activities, but this is in no way legally binding,” Sanford said.

July’s massive ocean dump in Canada was the exception, rather than the norm, as most experiments are done through computer simulations.

“Geoengineering experiments really haven’t moved into the real world, yet, because of many questions concerning [the] risk of unintended consequences and governance,” Sanford said.

Economic costs

Supporters of geoengineering point to the 1991 eruption of mount Pintabuo in the Philippines as an example of naturally occurring sulpher dioxide entering the high-atmosphere and reflecting the sun’s light away from the earth to cool the planet.

Unforeseen consequences aside, starting this aerosol technology could become addictive. “Once you get this going you have to keep it going otherwise you will get a very rapid recovery of warming.”

– Todd Sanford, climate specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists 

Between 1992 and 1993, the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface was reduced by about 10 per cent because of the volcano, leading some scientists to believe humans could replicate the process without too much difficulty.

“Had material from that volcano remained in the atmosphere, the earth might have cooled 3 or 4 degrees,” Caldeira said.

Climate change is already costing the world economy more than $1.2 trillion per year, according Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet, a study published in September by 50 leading scientists and economists.

In contrast, the cost of organising a geoengineering scheme where airplanes or hot air balloons disperse particles to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting earth is estimated at less than $5bn per year, according to a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in August.

“Injecting stratospheric aerosols would like give a rapid cooling and would be relatively inexpensive,” Sanford said of technology designed to “mimic volcanoes”.

“However, these methods also carry a great deal of risk as they may affect precipitation patterns and stratospheric ozone depletion.” These schemes could also lead to a white haze covering the sky, while increasing ocean acidification that  kills sea life and off-balances ecosystems.

Unforeseen consequences aside, starting this aerosol technology could become addictive, Stanford said. “Once you get this going you have to keep it going otherwise you will get a very rapid recovery of warming.”

South vs North

Global warming will affect some countries more than others, with poor regions in the global south expected to face the worst consequences. Some experts worry that politicians in large developing nations, such as Indonesia or China, could be compelled to try and alter the climate if extreme temperatures or droughts wipe out food supplies, sparking domestic unrest.

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In one of the bizarre ironies of climate change, wealthy northern countries, including Canada, Russia and parts of the US could benefit from global warming, as new land becomes open to farming, while melting ice in the Arctic opens trade routes and new sources of petroleum.

Countries that have the least responsibility for the climate crisis, and who suffer the most from its effects, could become vocal proponents of geoengineering.

“If the rich countries don’t come to the aid of the poor countries, a coalition of tropical countries could say ‘you rich people have messed up our climate and made it difficult to feed our people, so we are going to take matters into our own hands,'” Caldeira said. “To me, this is the most likely scenario of how a geoengineering scheme might be deployed.”

On November 19, the World Bank released a report titled Turn Down the Heat, warning global poverty cannot be properly addressed without tackling climate change. If current emissions continue, the World Bank forecasts a temperature rise of more than 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Under this scenario, extreme weather will be the “new normal”. Sea levels would rise about one metre, inundating poor countries including Vietnam and Bangladesh. Falling crop yields would compound hunger and poverty, the World Bank said.

If crops fail, people starve and governments begin to fall, countries could use the “threat of geoengineering” as a “bargaining chip” to get aid from other states, Caldeira said.

‘Plant a tree’

International rules on climate experiments are murky at best, and non-existent at worst. And even if the UN or some other body came up with a comprehensive framework, that doesn’t guarantee responsible behavior.

“As we saw with the invasion of Iraq, international law doesn’t mean very much when a group of powerful countries decide to do something,” Caldeira said. “If powerful countries felt their backs were against the wall, I could imagine them deploying something. If China was having crop failures and heat waves for years, it would seem hard for politicians not to deploy something to protect their people from suffering if the science was there.”

Currently, the science is shaky and researchers are pushing for increased funding. This worries some environmentalists. They believe putting money into these technologies constitutes a “moral hazard” as countries won’t seriously curb emissions if they believe humans will be able to “play God” by altering the climate.

“In so far as there are limited resources to be spent on the climate problem, I would prefer to see them spent on solutions to limit greenhouse gas emissions, rather than geoengineering,” Matthews said.

“The simplest carbon dioxide removal approach is to plant a tree.

– Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution for Science

There is little doubt that human activity is warming the planet. Jim Young Kim, the World Bank’s president, said 97 per cent of scientists agree on the reality of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising. And, if history provides lessons on the future, COP18 will not change the reality of a world addicted to fossil fuels, and people demanding economic growth over environmental sustainability.

Even if humans drastically reduced emissions today, the climate will continue warming for several decades before the effects would be felt. Politicians, who are usually elected for five-year terms, will be under pressure to get fast results from angry constituents – and geoengineering seems an appealing solution.

Rather than sending balloons into the atmosphere or iron into the sea with possibly disastrous consequences, Calderia said there are easier and more positive ways for humans to alter the climate to stem global warming.

“The simplest carbon dioxide removal approach is to plant a tree,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera