These technological hypotheses, referred to as Geoengineering or Solar Radiation Management, are based on the idea to reflect sunlight away from the earth enough to reduce global warming being caused by climate change. The term Geoengineering often refers to Carbon Capture and Storage techniques too but these will be discussed in another article.
The most popular geoengineering method is Stratospheric Aerosol Injection. The general idea is for a specially designed plane to spray an aerosol into the air (most likely sulphur dioxide) that would reflect sunlight away from the earth’s surface reducing the warming of the atmosphere. This is based on the natural cooling effect that a large volcano eruption can have such as what happened with Mount Pinatubo in 1991 which is said to have cooled the earth by half a degree for two or three years afterwards. Some research also suggests that aerosol injection can also restore rainfall patterns to what they were before the industrial revolution. Other methods of solar reflection include; ships spraying saltwater into the clouds in order to brighten them, removing radiation-storing cirrus clouds through aerosol injection, sending giant mirrors outside of the earth’s orbit, generating large amounts of bubbles or seafoam over vast areas in the ocean, and genetically engineering crops to make them more waxy and reflective.
Despite sounding quite outlandish and extreme, geoengineering discussions are a common feature at climate change conferences and meetings including the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COP) where policymakers, scientists, corporations and civil society gather every year to negotiate how to collectively tackle the planet’s most pressing issue. Geoengineering could be potentially used to reduce the planet’s warming by 0.1℃ every year until a total reduction of 1.5℃ is reached. Other potential benefits of geoengineering methods include restoring ice cover, addressing coral bleaching and even having positive effects on global agriculture.
It is important to keep in mind that geoengineering will only help to reduce the warming effect of the earth and does not tackle the emissions and presence of greenhouse gases. This means that geoengineering does nothing to clean the air we breathe, tackle ocean acidification and many of the other negative consequences of the climate crisis and how they impact human life.
At this point in time, geoengineering is by-and-large a collection of theories and hypotheses as none of these “technofixes” have been implemented on a large enough scale to truly understand their effects. This also means that we cannot be sure what their undesirable side-effects might be either. Many researchers have argued that the implementation of geoengineering methods could risk severe and long-term environmental and social hazards. Such risks include high UV exposure that will negatively impact human health, interfering with rainfall patterns or creating acid rain and drastic effects on wildlife due to sudden changes in temperature or insufficient sunlight in the case of deep-sea marine life for example. We cannot be sure how altering the climate in one part of the globe will affect another and we are in the dark about what might happen once geoengineering techniques are suddenly terminated.
Geoengineering also raises concerns surrounding global power imbalances and weaponisation given the transboundary scale with which it would need to be implemented. Projects of this scale would require global agreements and trust. Most likely, more developed countries and big corporations (including big polluters) will have control over these projects with very little consideration for less powerful, poorer countries who will feel the brunt of any negative effects. We are already seeing large private entities like ExxonMobil and Shell showing a great deal of interest in geoengineering as a way to earn major profits while delaying any real action on the climate crisis.
Even its advocates would tell you that geoengineering is not meant to be a solution to the climate crisis but rather a remedial measure to be used alongside the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the case of an emergency. This is, in fact, the way the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) are discussing the possibility of using it and they are hesitant to do so because it could easily become a way for world leaders and policymakers to continue to delay any meaningful action. This delay exacerbates the burdens we have already placed on future generations. Twenty-five UN climate conferences later and decision-makers are no closer to reaching the agreements necessary to mitigate the climate crisis. Professor Alan Robock from the department of environmental sciences at Rutgers University highlighted this in an interview with Carbon Brief:
“You’re asking if the world can come together and agree on geoengineering without agreeing on mitigation. I think the answer is for us to agree on mitigation.”
The hypothetical nature of geoengineering and its potential negative consequences are very problematic. Policymakers and world leaders need to focus their energy on drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and doing this requires seriously considering an overhaul of the current socio-economic system we live in which is responsible for so many of the social and environmental catastrophes that we and future generations are going to have to deal with.
The Author: JD Farrugia