Think you've heard enough about climate change? Chances are you haven't heard anything about the dangerous and costly sci-fi climate fixes known as geoengineering.
Geo-what? Geoengineering is a set of speculative, massive-scale technologies that would have humans intentionally modify the climate--rather than accidentally, as we've been doing since the Industrial Revolution. Many U.S. lawmakers are starting to take it seriously as a climate change Plan B.
Yet, proposed geoengineering schemes are absurd and potentially devastating for the Earth.
Here are a few examples of how you could make the Earth cooler by "managing solar radiation" (i.e. manipulating the sun):
- Put trillions of tiny mirrors between Earth and sun to reflect sunlight back to space.
- Whiten the clouds over our oceans by increasing the droplet size, making the Earth more reflective.
- Blast sulphate particles into the stratosphere to simulate volcanic eruptions, again to block sunlight and diminish warming.
Then there are technologies under development to actually suck carbon out of the atmosphere and bury it, either:
- In oceans through growing algae, which feeds on CO₂, or
- On highways, by lining them with giant synthetic trees (which use chemical processes to suck CO₂ out of the air).
You'd think that only mad scientists could conjure up these schemes. That may be true with some of them. But in a world where carbon--whose excess is causing the climate to change in ways that endanger human health--has become a tradable commodity, there's money to be made out of contrived carbon business ventures.
Neither national laws nor international negotiations are making much progress to halt the accumulation of atmospheric carbon. Technophiles are taking advantage of that void by promoting their own schemes.
Logically, since these schemes will cost incalculable billions of dollars, there's a geoengineering lobby comprised of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs. It includes a few eminent scientists like geochemist Ken Caldeira and businessmen like Richard Branson. This lobby is seizing the moment, loudly proclaiming that there's no alternative and that they're only coming up with these proposals out of their duty to save the world.
Their ideas are nuts, but prestigious science academies, the media, and Congress are listening to them.
Several reports examining geoengineering options have been published in London and Washington over the past year. Congress has held hearings. The Government Accountability Office has called for a coordinated federal strategy. Bill Gates is funding research. The National Academy of Sciences is devoting attention to it and scientists are looking at "voluntary standards" for tampering with the climate.
Experts expect the federal government to announce plans to spend much more money on geoengineering research.
Ironically, some of geoengineering's most ardent advocates are best known for their arguments against climate action, including outfits like the American Enterprise Institute and individuals like Bjørn Lomborg of Denmark. Somehow they're now urgently calling for a massive techno-fix for a problem they have spent their careers saying is exaggerated.
Fortunately, a few cooler heads are prevailing. The pace at which these technologies were being pushed to the fore so alarmed participants at a UN meeting in Japan in October, that the 193 countries present adopted a moratorium on geoengineering experiments.
The world's governments, which had convened to discuss the alarming decline of natural biodiversity, rightly saw geoengineering's potential for ecological disaster.
They saw the possibility of these harebrained schemes destroying the oceans, disturbing weather patterns, concentrating unprecedented power to control the Earth's thermostat in a very small number of hands, and the possibility of unilateral deployment of unsafe technologies.
Geoengineering's potential political fallout could include war, mass starvation, and an inability to ever "switch off" the technological systems these crazy operations would deploy. Plus, think of the chaos that would result if our ecosystems never returned to anything close to their natural state.
Of course, we can't even predict the most serious consequences because we don't even fully understand the complex climate system geoengineers propose to manipulate.
Our planet's health is at stake. Geoengineering is a reckless gamble we can't afford.