Article I got published recently
Geoengineering involves modifying natural planetary systems and processes in order to combat climate change by addressing the difference between incoming and outgoing solar radiation (or radiative imbalance). It’s done either by reducing the incoming solar radiation, for instance by firing mirrors into space to divert sunlight, or by trapping CO2 and storing it in long-term reservoirs, such as by dumping minerals into the sea to encourage higher absorption rates of CO2.
The idea of geoengineering inspires in me the same level of queasiness and unease as the thought of consuming some unrecognisable slurry that has been at the back of the fridge for far too long for it to be acceptable. Perhaps that is an overstatement, but both geoengineering and nuclear energy share the accolade of being distrusted by my gut instinct, which I generally consider to be fairly accurate. Geoengineering deeply unnerves me, in much the same way that nuclear energy does; both concepts involve messing with something we don’t understand properly, like a kid sticking her finger in a plug socket. Tinkering with the environment in order to satisfy the public that enough is being done about climate change, whilst having very little idea of how the sensitive systems involved are going to react, or creating tons of nuclear waste that will take millions of years to degrade, seem much the same when such a high degree of scientific uncertainty is involved. It is particularly terrifying when the science behind it can be manipulated to justify changing very little about our lifestyles, and not tackling well-entrenched inequity on a national and international level.
On top of that, most of the proposals sound like something Magneto might try in order to screw with the Xmen – launching a field of mirrors into space? Pretending you are a volcano by spraying sulphur into the atmosphere? Building metal trees to absorb carbon? The list continues… The intentions are right – without a binding international agreement and drastic action on the part of developed countries to curb emissions growth, there is little hope of achieving reduction targets, and geoengineering appears to provide a solution. However, it is abundantly clear that there is no silver bullet and that the most realistic chance of change is incremental, and attitudinal. Not a very sexy answer, unfortunately – whereas shiny solutions that involve space travel and chemicals certainly are. There are definitely some ‘techno-fixes’ that seem defensible, such as painting roofs white. Impractical, implausible and pretty ineffectual, but missing the harmful side-effects that other strategies have; like tons of iron filings washing up on beaches along the Pacific due to poor understanding of ocean circulation.
At risk of sounding like a red top, in most circumstances, uncertainty wins out for me. However, this week experts have said that Arctic summer sea ice will have completely collapsed in four years, and have called again for drastic action to be taken on climate change. Prof Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University outlined the need for a dual approach in an email to the Guardian; “we must not only urgently reduce CO2 emissions but must urgently examine other ways of slowing global warming, such as … various geoengineering ideas”. It is apparent that geoengineering has a place in the context of emissions reduction and curbing consumption, though it is necessity that has driven the scientific community thus far – had emissions cuts been made earlier, no doubt such dramatic steps would not have been needed. Were things not looking so bleak, I would rather be safe than sorry and steer away from tampering with what we don’t know, but it looks like soon we’re going to be very, very sorry, whatever happens.