Geoengineering may be in your future.
Geoengineering involves such untested sunlight reflection technology as stratospheric injection of sulfur dioxide, marine cloud brightening and massive sunshields. It is a scary topic, but we need to pull our heads out of the sand and take a hard look at it.
Annual temperatures and climate disasters are increasing rapidly. The COP 27 targets are worth less than the paper they are printed on if they are not met. Many scientists believe it is unlikely we can meet the 2.0-Celsius target and the hope of holding warming to 1.5-Celsius is largely abandoned.
David Keith, a Harvard professor, is the founder of a major carbon capture company and a recognized expert in solar engineering research. In a recent New York Times article, he explained that, even if we can eliminate emissions by 2050, the world would be extremely hot by then, with far worse heatwaves and storms than we have today. We will face centuries of sea level rise and polar ice melt. Even if we could stop all emissions soon, the cooling of our overheated planet will take thousands of years.
Keith says that “to cool the planet, humans must either remove carbon from the air or use solar geoengineering, a temporary measure that may reduce peak temperatures, extreme storms and other climate changes.”
Carbon removal has the political headwind, but, as Keith points out, it is very slow as carbon must be removed ton by ton, it’s very expensive and it’s hard to get up to scale. “Geoengineering,” as he points out, “is cheap and acts fast, but it can’t deflate the carbon bubble. It is a Band-Aid, not a cure.”
There has been little research on the effects of geoengineering, but that is changing. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is coordinating a five-year research plan on planet interventions — geoengineering — in partnership with NASA and NOAA, which will define research goals for the field, assess the potential hazards of climate interventions and evaluate the level of federal investments required to carry out that work.
We are not alone. Other nations, including China, the UK and those in the global south likely to suffer most from rapid warming are already researching these options.
The scientific consensus may be shifting. “Until recently, I thought it was too risky, but slow progress in cutting emissions has increased the motivation to understand techniques at the margins like solar engineering,” said Chris Field in The Guardian last December.
Field chaired the National Academies of Sciences 2021 report that recommended researching the issue. “I don’t think we should deploy it yet and there are still a ton of concerns, but we need to better understand it,” he said. “Climate Change is causing widespread impacts, it’s costing lives and wrecking economies. We are in a tough position; we are running out of time, so it’s important that we know more.”
To make matters worse, there is at present no international mechanism to stop a country or rogue actor from deploying geoengineering techniques, even though the effects would be widespread and are largely unknown. A 2021 Brookings Institution report emphasized the need for new monitoring and surveillance technologies that could help detect climate interventions, the need for international geoengineering governance, as well as research on both geoengineering practices and counter–geoengineering practices. The new White House study needs to address those concerns.
Opponents of geoengineering say it poses a “moral hazard” in that it could impede critical action in reducing emissions and eliminating fossil fuels. But geoengineering cannot solve global warming. It is, at best, a last-ditch short-term intervention and a highly risky one that may buy us a little time.
At some point, it may come down to dollars and time. Climate change will cost trillions in devastation and economic losses. Mitigation is slow and running late. Adaptation means a different world and insurmountable losses. As reported on CNBC last October by Edward Parsons of UCLA law school, the estimated price tag for lowering the Earth by 1 degree Celsius via sulfur dioxide injection is cheap, about $10 billion a year. Sunshields, which are still merely a theoretical option, may cost trillions.
But geoengineering opens a new Pandora’s box of nefarious activity and mismanagement that could make a sci-fi writer salivate. Like the advent and use of nuclear weapons, the actual costs to our world will be unknown. The debate needs to be made public and be very transparent. Our best defense, and that means every one of us, is to do everything we can to cut our emissions, support sensible science-based policies and keep our heads out of the sand.
Judith Polich is a New Mexico resident and a climate change columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.