Geoengineering

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Geoengineering is not focused on a single technology, but on large-scale alteration of the earth in order to slow down the global warming process. These proposals are intended to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide and solar rays hitting the earth. As the technology of the world grows more sophisticated, so do the possibilities for geoengineering expansion.

Geoengineering is an adaptation method, and does not seek to change our current emission levels. Rather, it seeks to change to the environment around us. Geoengineering is not the final solution to solving global warming, but its applications can be used to dramatically lessen its effects. In conjunction with mitigation strategies, geoengineering can extend the deadline with which to find a viable and stable solution for global warming. There are several proposed technologies that can alter the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and terrain in order to combat global warming.


Solar Mirrors

The implementation of solar reflectors into outer space is one of the most prominent of geoengineering schemes. One proposal involves putting 16 trillion refracting discs into space in order to reflect 2% of the suns rays.[1] This would reduce the burden of the sun on the climate and offset the increased amount of carbon dioxide. Despite the promising technology, it requires vast amounts of resources which could only be attained through international cooperation.[2] This method would also reduce annual rainfall by 2%, increasing the likelihood of droughts in an increasing populated world. In addition, solar shields have the potential to be used as weapons.


Stratospheric Aerosols

The explosion of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 presented hope for input of sulfur into the atmosphere. The global ban on aerosols provided a precursor for effective global initiative to stop a potentially catastrophic event in the depletion of the ozone layer. Ironically, aerosols are now considered as part of the solution to slow down the global warming process.[3]An immense volcanic eruption such as Mount Pinatubo correlates with global decrease in temperatures. The large amounts of ash serve as a blanket that blocks solar rays. The explosion of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 caused a dip in global temperatures, and presented an anomaly in the constantly increasing temperatures occurring each year. The input of half the amount of sulfur from Pinatubo into the atmosphere every year would counterbalance the effect of greenhouse gases. The risk is that all the sulfur can damage the stratospheric ozone layer.[4]


Ocean Sequestration and Fertilization

The vast surface area of the ocean also presents an opportunity to use technology in order to dump large amounts of carbon dioxide into the ocean. The ocean currently absorbs 80% of the carbon dioxide that is put into the atmosphere. One proposal for ocean sequestration involves tubes being placed underwater and phytoplankton bloom growth stimulated with iron in order to absorb the carbon dioxide.[5] This second phase is known as ocean fertilization and is designed to increase the amount of carbon dioxide the ocean can absorb. However, opposition on the issue is based on the uncertainties of the water’s chemistry. The massive amounts of carbon dioxide could change the ocean’s chemistry and further exacerbate the problem. It could present considerable damage to the organisms that exist in the oceans.


Economics and Cost-Benefit Analysis

Geoengineering is an expensive, large scale endeavor. Many of these technologies need further research and have not been implemented yet. Taking into account the cost-benefit analysis, geoengineering becomes more lucrative when the effects of climate change become too demanding on the global population. In comparison to mitigation, geoengineering presents fixed costs for proposals. Mitigation, on the other hand, depends on the amount being decreased in emissions.[6] The estimated cost for downwelling ocean currents, or sequestering carbon in the ocean, is estimated to cost about $45 billion. However, this is something northern European states can afford.[7]Another benefit to this is that geoengineering does not involve a change in our oil-based economy, for better or for worse.


Politics

Geoengineering does not present the problems in international law that mitigation in areas such as solar and wind power present. For the most part, geoengineering does not need the full participation of all international members in order to succeed. Most advanced nations could incur the cost, and it would not force domestic lifestyles and economic policies.[8] Nevertheless, the risk associated with geoengineering presents political tension. Ocean sequestration and fertilization has the potential to cause friction over maritime boundary disputes. The risks in this respect are also uncertain, and fishing industries might be deeply affected.[9]

Geoengineering is a cost intensive process, and only the wealthiest handful of nations such as the United States and France could afford to implement such technologies. The global community therefore can only hope to prevent the use of such risky geoengineering methods. If a wealthy nation felt that the situation was desperate and was worried about its survival, it would certainly be compelled to implement geoengineering processes despite the uncertainties involved. For example, sulfates being pumped into the air has the potential to produce acid rain, risking the welfare of poorer nations especially.[10] The inequality of wealth creates a disparity of power in which a few determine the fate of the rest. Such a situation is just as dangerous as the possession of nuclear weapons, where misuse of technology can have devastating effects on the planet.


Ethics

Geoengineering is a questionable method precisely because it deals with adapting to our heavy dependence on fossil fuels rather than returning our emissions to stable levels. The idea of fundamentally altering our planet to accommodate the needs of humans is not only risky but extremely selfish. Even supporters of geoengineering believe that it should be complimented with mitigation, and that it be implemented in times of dire need to buy more time for durable mitigation strategies. [11] Altering the planet even more in order to lessen the damage humans have caused is counter intuitive and irrational. Geoengineering is only condoning the problem rather than adressing the root cause, which has been alteration and unnatural change of the atmosphere.

Geoengineering is also fairly uncertain in both its methods and its risks. Many of the proposed ideas are theoretical, and any large-scale resolution would come not from the efforts of people but from our technology and the initiatives of governments. Relying on technology is dangerous, and even more so when we do not know the severity of global warming. The situation might be more than geoengineering strategies can sustain. Geoengineering technologies are untested and risky, and solutions such the injection of large amount of aerosols into the atmosphere can destroy the ozone layer and worsen the state of our planet.[12]

Conclusion

Geoengineering suffers from moral, political, and economic dilemmas that stem from uncertainty and environmental alteration. Nevertheless, more research should be put into geoengineering, with the dual purpose of eliminating uncertainties and making such technologies available if the situation does become desperate.

Updates

The debate on geoengineering remains lively, as illustrated by a recent exchange between Alex Steffen and Ken Caldeira. On a WorldChanging post, Steffen critiqued a recent chapter on geoengineering by Caldeira: The editors include a lame chapter on geoengineering that largely ignores the politics of the geoengineering debate and concludes 'geoengineering schemes have the potential to make things better, but they could also make things worse.' For such an important and charged debate, milquetoast equivocation is not a helpful contribution to the discussion [13]" Caldiera's response includes: Climate engineering schemes appear to have the potential reduce climate risk, but that cannot be asserted with certainty given the poorly understood complex web of Earth system feedbacks and socio-political ramifications. For those who live in a black and white world, everything is simple and all is known without doubt [14]

Notes

  1. Sands, Derek. "Space mirrors to combat global warming? Scientists mull 'geoengineering' schemes." Inside Energy 09 06 2008 13. 29 Oct 2008 <http://www.lexisnexis.com/us/lnacademic/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T4969175086&format=GNBFI&sort=RELEVANCE&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T4969175097&cisb=22_T4969175096&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=7989&docNo=1>.
  2. Song, Vivian. "Reflecting on the weather; Geoengineering explores futuristic solutions to our climate change problems." The Toronto Son 20 January, 2008 24. 29 Oct 2008 <http://www.lexisnexis.com/us/lnacademic/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T4965913332&format=GNBFI&sort=RELEVANCE&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T4965913336&cisb=22_T4965913335&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=256740&docNo=2>.
  3. Wigley, T.M.L.. "A Combined Mitigation/Geoengineering Approach to Climate Stabilization ." Science Vol. 31420 October 2006 452-454. 21 Oct 2008 <http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/314/5798/452>
  4. Wigley, T.M.L.. "A Combined Mitigation/Geoengineering Approach to Climate Stabilization ." Science Vol. 31420 October 2006 452-454. 21 Oct 2008 <http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/314/5798/452>
  5. Zhou, S. and Flynn, P.C.. "GEOENGINEERING DOWNWELLING OCEAN CURRENTS: A COST ASSESSMENT." 29 April 2004 29 Oct 2008 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=0&did=923835881&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=6&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1225305296&clientId=28381&cfc=1>.
  6. Keith, David W.. "Geoengineering." Encyclopedia for Global Change Feb 2000 29 Oct 2008 <http://www.ucalgary.ca/~keith/papers/44.Keith.2002.GeoengOxfordEncy.f.pdf>.
  7. Zhou, S. and Flynn, P.C.. "GEOENGINEERING DOWNWELLING OCEAN CURRENTS: A COST ASSESSMENT." 29 April 2004 29 Oct 2008 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=0&did=923835881&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=6&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1225305296&clientId=28381&cfc=1>.
  8. Keith, David W.. "Geoengineering." Encyclopedia for Global Change Feb 2000 29 Oct 2008 <http://www.ucalgary.ca/~keith/papers/44.Keith.2002.GeoengOxfordEncy.f.pdf>.
  9. Keith, David W.. "Geoengineering." Encyclopedia for Global Change Feb 2000 29 Oct 2008 <http://www.ucalgary.ca/~keith/papers/44.Keith.2002.GeoengOxfordEncy.f.pdf>.
  10. Cascio, Jamais. "The Politics of Engineering." Institution for Ethics and Emerging Technologies 26 Oct, 2007 2 Nov 2008 <http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/2094/>.
  11. Song, Vivian. "Reflecting on the weather; Geoengineering explores futuristic solutions to our climate change problems." The Toronto Son 20 January, 2008 24. 29 Oct 2008 <http://www.lexisnexis.com/us/lnacademic/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T4965913332&format=GNBFI&sort=RELEVANCE&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T4965913336&cisb=22_T4965913335&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=256740&docNo=2>.
  12. "Geoengineering solution to global warming could destroy the ozone layer." Monogabay 24 Apr 2008 3 Nov 2008 <http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0424-geoengineering.html>.
  13. <http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/009059.html>.
  14. <http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/009081.html>.