Geoengineering 'fixes' help us view climate change
* Damp start to week before big warm-up: CWG's Full Forecast *
Here's a question for you (assuming that you are open to the evidence that recent climate change is largely manmade): How confident are you that humanity will take the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and limit global climate change to the lower end of the current projections?
Personally, the past few years -- which have featured increasingly urgent scientific warnings about the pace and scope of climate change, coupled with scant political progress -- have made me doubt that we will succeed in preventing very significant climate change through reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. Part of this doubt is fueled by a view that many people still don't think of human activities as turning the planet's thermostat up to 11, to use a reference from the movie This Is Spinal Tap.
The increasingly serious conversations taking place in the scientific community about a highly controversial 'Plan B,' also known as 'geoengineering,' reflect the growing realization that time is running out to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions enough to constrain climate change to relatively manageable levels. The alternative tactics encompassed by geoengineering scare the heck out of me, but I think that discussing their potential use will help foster improved awareness of global climate change and the mechanisms behind it.
Keep reading for more on geoengineering...
Geoengineering is a fancy term referring to the idea of deliberately modifying the climate system to produce a certain effect, in this case to reduce global warming. It is based on a view that we may be able to manipulate, or hack into, the climate system to alter it for certain purposes. In many ways, geoengineering sounds like an absolutely crazy idea.
Why would we risk unintended blowback by tinkering with the climate?
Fundamentally we are already geoengineering the planet -- by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere via burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Regardless of the merits of particular geoengineering proposals, I think the concept of geoengineering itself is helpful for understanding climate change, because it inherently involves an active human role in controlling Earth's temperature.
Rolling Stone writer Jeff Goodell, author of a new book on geoengineering, expressed a similar view in a March 26 interview with the radio show "Living on Earth." Goodell stated: "One of the things I like about the discussion about geoengineering is that it makes explicit this idea that we are in control. Right now, we are in control. We are pushing the planet towards a completely different kind of climate, but we're in denial about it."
Geoengineering proposals range from fertilizing the oceans with iron so the seas suck up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere in order to block out incoming solar radiation. The idea is that implementing proposals such as these would help counter the warming that could result from a "too little, too late" approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Such schemes raise a host of thorny scientific, ethical, moral and governance questions, such as: Who has the right to intentionally alter the climate? Do all nations have an equal right? Who is liable if something goes terribly wrong? How should research on these proposals, which could have nasty unintended consequences, be tested? And how should we decide whether/when to implement a proposal?
Last week, more than 175 experts from a variety of fields gathered at a conference on "Climate Intervention Technologies" in California. At the end of the week, the conference organizing committee endorsed geoengineering research, calling it "indispensible" in light of political leaders' failure to date to achieve major cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.
"The fact that humanity's efforts to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases (mitigation) have been limited to date is a cause of deep concern," the conference statement said.
"Additionally, uncertainties in the response of the climate system to increased greenhouse gases leave open the possibility of very large future changes. It is thus important to initiate further research in all relevant disciplines to better understand and communicate whether additional strategies to moderate future climate change are, or are not, viable, appropriate and ethical."
The conference statement said a key purpose of geoengineering research is to better quantify the risks associated with various methods. The unknown risks are what scare so many, including myself, about the geoengineering concept. "We do not yet have sufficient knowledge of the risks associated with using methods for climate intervention and remediation, their intended and unintended impacts, and their efficacy in reducing the rate of climatic change to assess whether they should or should not be implemented," the conference organizers concluded.
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.
| March 29, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Policy, Science
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