For the first time in three million years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has surpassed 400 parts per million. This scientific fact lends itself to the belief that the world is headed for irreversible climate change, prompting many to consider a drastic plan B: geoengineering.
Geoengineering – the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract human-induced climate change – may allow the human race to seize control over the planet’s climatic system.
Plan B offers the prospect of humans engineering their way out of climate catastrophe. It’s an attractive idea, but is it wise to open a potential Pandora’s Box of stratospheric proportion?
Schemes like whitening clouds with microscopic particles to deflect the Sun’s heat sound so ‘sci-fi’ it hurts. Some more serious strategies rely on technology that is currently available and can be quickly deployed. Two prominent geoengineering technologies include ocean iron fertilization and sulfate aerosol spraying, both of which have a scientific-commercial standing.
So, can we be certain that, even after research and small-scale testing, these technological solutions will work as planned?
Ocean fertilization – the spreading of iron slurry across the upper ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide – would mean changing the biological balance of the seas. The process will affect marine food production and cloud formation. Likewise, injecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere would temporarily cool the planet by filtering the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface. However, the impact of this strategy on the ozone layer and weather systems is largely unknown.
And who has fingers on the climate’s big red button?
Research efforts are centred in the United States and Western Europe. Some geoengineering projects are relatively inexpensive and simplistic enough to be untaken by any midsize nation, or even a single billionaire with grand ideas; Bill Gates has been funding geoengineering experiments for several years.
Perhaps the greatest risk in dabbling with geoengineering is that it undermines the incentive to cut carbon. It alludes to a future where there is no need for a tax on emissions, nor a need to change our unsustainable behaviours. It allows us to contemplate the possibility of using industrial infrastructure to counteract the negative impacts of industrial infrastructure, instead of shifting to a sustainable solution. Instead of inventing a new world, perhaps we should learn to live better on this one.