Geoengineering: A Techno-Fix Solution for the Climate? 

By Guy McPherson

Climate engineering, also referred to as geoengineering, is the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climatic system with the aim of reducing global warming. Climate engineering has two categories of technologies: carbon dioxide removal, and solar radiation management. Carbon dioxide removal addresses a cause of climate change by removing one of the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Solar radiation management attempts to offset the effects of greenhouse gases by causing the Earth to absorb less solar radiation. 

In a report released 27 September 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that global warming is irreversible without geoengineering.

The widely trusted and respected IPCC is among the most conservative scientific bodies on the planet, and their reports are ‘significantly diluted’ under political pressure. For example, their reports fail to include relevant self-reinforcing feedback loops, leaving out a range of factors that impact the severity of global warming. In addition, governments meddle with the reports to ensure Pollyanna outcomes, as reported by a participant in the government approval process.. Nafeez Ahmed, reporting in the Guardian, reveals political pressure from governments, including the US, Saudi Arabia, China and Brazil has led to policy summaries being watered down, and controversy over deleted data has caused friction between scientists and diplomats.

A more reasonable expectation of future climate change is provided by David Wasdell. In his May 2014 analysis, Wasdell includes a critique of the IPCC’s ongoing conservatism with a single line: “equilibrium temperature increase predicted as a result of current concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases is already over 5°C.” In light of the fact that we humans have never occupied this planet at 3.3oC or more above the baseline (set from the beginning of the industrial revolution in about 1750), I see no way for humans to survive such a rise in global-average temperature. Such conditions naturally give rise to the desperation for solutions whose uncertainty is the only thing that is certain about them, such as geoengineering. On the topic of geoengineering, Truth-out correctly headlines their assessment from 22 April 2014, “Intergovernmental Climate Report Leaves Hopes Hanging on Fantasy Technology.” And Time follows up two days later with the desperate headline, “NASA Chief: Humanity’s Future Depends On Mission To Mars”, a notion that some are desperate enough to take seriously.

Noting that the preceding assessments from Wasdell, Truth-out, and Time are not published in refereed journals, let’s look into some of the peer-reviewed literature, the gold standard of scientific publication.

In the 5th December 2013 issue of Earth System Dynamics, it is pointed out that known strategies for geoengineering are unlikely to succeed, concluding that, in light of serious knock-on effects such as disrupting global rainfall patterns, “climate geoengineering cannot simply be used to undo global warming”. Research published in the 8th January 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters, echoes these concerns: “attempts to reverse the impacts of global warming by injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere could make matters worse”.  Disruption in precipitation patterns around the world are also cited as cause for concern in the December 2013 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, regardless of whether geoengineering may actually succeed in cooling the Earth. Furthermore, “risk of abrupt and dangerous warming is inherent to the large-scale implementation of SRM” (solar radiation management), as pointed out in the 17th February 2014 issue of Research Letters. About a week later comes this line from research published in the 25th February 2014 issue of Nature Communication: “schemes to minimize the havoc caused by global warming by purposefully manipulating Earth’s climate are likely to either be relatively useless or actually make things worse.” Finally, in a blow to technocrats, published online in the 25th June 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change, a large and distinguished group of international researchers concludes that geoengineering will not actually stop climate change.

As it turns out, the public isn’t impressed either: research published in the 12th January 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change, “reveals that the overall public evaluation of climate engineering is negative.” Despite pervasive American ignorance about science, the public correctly interprets geoengineering in the same light as the scientists, and contrary to the techno-optimists.

Unimpressed with evidence and public opinion, some scientists forge on, illustrating that the progressive perspective often means progressing toward the cliff’s edge. As reported in the 27th November 2014 issue of New Scientist, initial efforts to cool the planet via geoengineering have taken shape and might begin in as little as two years.

Geoengineering ignores a message to which the medical profession has long adhered, and which seems quite relevant in this case: “First, do no harm.” In a complex adaptive system, it is almost certain that unintended consequences will result from the application of any technological fix, and the evidence suggests that these consequences will be devastating for many; we simply do not have the control over the climate that techno-optimists would like to believe we have.

Rather than assuming the universe has been designed for human existence, let’s take another route. Let’s assume we’re minor actors in a long, evolutionary play. Let’s assume all individuals will die and all species will go extinct. And then, let’s take a long look inside ourselves on a quest for our own humanity.



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