December 6, 2013
from TheVerge Website
Geoengineering could be
the silver bullet in fighting climate change
...or the start of something
It's on his mind because as the next
century unfolds, David Keith expects it to happen again.
Keith, who has grown into geoengineering's leading advocate after his recent book on the topic, says the technology would be,
It's an exciting, dangerous idea - and it already has its opponents.
In the years that he's been researching
geoengineering, David Keith says he's received two death
threats serious enough to warrant calls to the police.
In a world of catastrophic global warming, solar radiation management might be our only way to cool the planet and forestall the most damaging effects of climate change.
The theory is simple:
There's plenty of support for the theory, including a few sulfate-spewing volcanoes which have cooled the globe in the past, but it's still unclear how it would work in practice.
It's generally accepted that the
sulfates would disappear from the atmosphere within a few years, but
more complex effects remain unknown.
It's easy to see why critics are nervous. In the wrong hands, solar radiation management has the potential to destroy the planet's ecosystem entirely. The danger of a sulfate-triggered global drought or an accidental ice age is very real, and the climate is too complex to predict on a global scale.
More than that, it's still unclear
exactly how governments would use this technology. Like the nuclear
bomb, geoengineering would require a kind of global governance that
simply doesn't exist yet, and many climate activists see the
climate-engineering cure as worse than the disease.
Once carbon emissions stopped around 2070, the sulfate drops would phase out, ending completely by 2120.
Warming would still be a problem, of
course, but geoengineering would let it come on slowly, giving
ecosystems time to evolve and avoiding the destructive climate
shocks that some studies predict. And by phasing out the action,
Keith would avoid the dangers of an open-ended program in which
warming worsens over centuries as geoengineering efforts face
Still, it rests on dozens of potentially dicey decisions.
Behind all of those questions is an even bigger one:
The ETC Group, a Montreal-based environmental organization, has led the charge against geoengineering, arguing that modern governance simply isn't ready for that kind of power.
As soon as the technology is developed, Pat Mooney anticipates, it will be handed off to bureaucrats with little regard for the public good.
The new sulfate layer only works during daylight hours, while CO2 affects temperatures around the clock, so his geoengineered world would have cooler days and warmer nights.
Global warming means a warmer and wetter world, but geoengineering the climate back to its pre-carbon temperature might result in a dangerously dry planet.
Keith prefers to hold precipitation
constant, resulting in a slight temperature increase, but that's
just one approach. Whoever handles the process will have to balance
global temperature, precipitation levels, and storm power with no
clear answers to guide them through.
Sulfate drops are exceedingly cheap on a global scale, costing hundreds of millions of dollars rather than the tens of trillions it would take to recapture atmospheric carbon. At that scale, a single country could take on the project unilaterally.
Russia has already advocated for the technology, led by Putin adviser Yuri Izrael, even though the oil-rich regime still doesn't blame carbon for warming.
It's a small enough sum that it could even fall to the private sector, led by environmentally minded billionaires like,
(Gates is already partially funding Keith's research.)
Larger countries would see it as a rogue action, but that doesn't mean they'd stop it outright. More likely, some experts anticipate, is a push from one of the small southern nations hit hardest by climate change.
In a recent piece titled "The Desperation Argument for Geoengineering," ethicist Stephen Gardiner envisions a unilateral break by a country like the Maldives, which could be completely obliterated by stronger storms and rising sea levels.
If the Maldives decided to act early on geoengineering, maybe through the Coalition of Small Island States, who would stop them? Would Western leaders be willing to shoot down their sulfate-spewing planes in the name of global governance?
Gardiner calls the case "morally complex in ways unappreciated by simple appeals to desperation," but the realpolitik of the issue is even more fraught.
The UN currently oversees environmentalism's biggest international success story, the 1989 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, which could make it a natural fit for striking the balance on geoengineering.
But reducing carbon emissions is much trickier than reducing ozone gases, and the UN has had real problems bringing countries in line. For many, that's hobbled the organization's credibility for geoengineering.
Keith in particular sees the General Assembly's one-country-one-vote policy as essentially unworkable for managing the global climate.
Experts expect any plausible deal would be based on a trilateral framework, balancing the interests of Russia, China, and the United States as the most important moving parts in a global consensus.
China will want to protect its monsoon, while Russia may hold out to protect its oil reserves, but it's easy to imagine the three countries ending up on the same page, especially if the global crisis predicted by climatologists is raging in the background.
In the end, all three countries want a stable climate that's capable of producing enough food to feed its inhabitants.
If geoengineering can deliver it, the
politics will follow suit.
What will the trilateral climate engineers think of droughts in Africa, wildfires in Australia or increasingly deadly storms in the South Pacific, when weighed against their own crop yields?
Like most powerful countries, the trilateral nations rest comfortably north of the 20th parallel.
What happens to those that sit below, struggling with more powerful storms without the political clout to influence their own climates?
The result could be a global climate designed by and for the wealthy northern countries.
Still, for the scientists of geoengineering, there's no choice but to plow ahead.
We don't know if humanity will chart the same course with geoengineering.
Like most technology, there's no telling how the world will use it in a century's time. But even if this new power could become monstrous, can we turn away?
On a warming planet, can we afford to throw away the tools that might save us?