May 21, 2009
The (Dangerous?) Allure of Geo-engineering
Geoengineering is the idea that we as humans can somehow "hack the planet" and to control (i.e. engineer) climate systems on a large-scale and counteract the potentially disastrous impacts of global climate change. Once considered the realm of kooks, crackpots and science fiction writers, the idea was given a recent push towards legitimacy when none other than John Holdren, the White House's science advisor, mentioned that no option, no matter how farfetched, is off the table as far as climate change was concerned.
Holdren later clarified that this was only his own personal opinion and not that of the current administration, but when Obama's science chief admits to considering something it does add a note of credibility to the argument.
Breakthrough Senior Fellow, Roger Pielke Jr., was recently asked by Seed magazine to throw in his own two cents on the issue. Along with four other writers, scientists and environmental advocates, Pielke had this to say:
Writing in Nature last December, Dan Sarewitz and Dick Nelson offer three criteria by which to distinguish "problems amenable to technological fixes from those that are not." Here I apply these criteria to the technology of geo-engineering the climate system, defined by the American Meteorological Society as an effort to "deliberately manipulate large-scale physical, chemical, or biological aspects of the climate system to counteract the climate effects of increasing greenhouse gas emissions." Examples of geo-engineering thus include injecting aerosols into the stratosphere or seeding the ocean with iron, but would not include capturing carbon dioxide from coal plants or the ambient air.
Geo-engineering falls well short of all three of the criteria that Sarewitz/Nelson present as guidelines for when to employ a technological fix."
(read Pielke's response in full here)
The problem for Roger and, arguably, every other respondent on the panel, is that much of this technology is untested and, thereby, unquantifiable. As with anything intended to work on a global scale, it is tough for us to say just what the effects down the road would be--if, even, we might do more harm than good, despite our best efforts.
As seductive as it may be to want to believe that adding X amount of said chemical to the atmosphere will have predictable result Y and stave off the dire consequences of global warming, the consensus from the panel of five seems to be that while further research to develop these technologies to the point where their potential effects (both good and ill) are more readily understood can be nothing but a good thing, it is right and prudent to recognize the psychological dangers of viewing geo-engineering as something of a silver bullet - or an alternative to emissions mitigation strategies - particularly when other technologies to drive a clean energy transition have already been established as highly effective.
We all know and recognize the lure of a quick fix. More often than not, however, the solution is never quick, or easy. Emissions reductions can be achieved by developing and rapidly deploying the clean, cheap energy sources that can move the economy away from carbon based fuels as fast as possible. This is an established fact. And while a grand-scale geofix might eventually help tip the scales in our favor, we should be loath to ignore the time-tested approach only because it is difficult.
To read the compelling arguments verbatim, click here...
Also, if you like writer Alex Steffan's perspective on the subject (The Little Lifeboat that Couldn't), check out his more in-depth analysis of geo-engineering here..