Should We Be Geoengineering?

by Ellen

Geoengineering, or “Climate Intervention,” is a hot topic these days.  Purposefully manipulating the environment to offset global warming could have both intended and unintended outcomes.  In an effort to keep rising sea levels, droughts and floods from spinning out of control, proposed projects range from reflecting sunlight to capturing and storing greenhouse gases.  Maybe you’ve heard of man-made clouds of sulfate particles (think simulated volcanic eruptions) or schemes to fertilize the oceans with iron to feed carbon dioxide-trapping phytoplankton.  Would climate intervention help avert or slow vast species extinctions or food and clean water shortages?

Something as seemingly benign as capturing and storing greenhouse gases may sound beneficial, but we can’t fully predict how our tinkering with the climate on a large scale might affect plants, animals, and weather patterns around the globe.  Scientists warn that while we may be able to stop or reverse net global warming, the resulting world temperature distribution could look quite different.  Some detractors of geoengineering also caution that relying upon technology makes us less inclined to take care of our environment proactively, as individuals and countries.

At last October’s Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya, Japan, 193 countries agreed to an informal moratorium on the large-scale practice of climate intervention.  The United Nations Climate Panel will include geoengineering in its 2013 major report.  In the meantime, research in the area continues.  There may well come a time when the immediate need for mitigating intervention is no longer debatable.  The Caldeira Lab at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science studies the possible consequences of different climate intervention programs.

For some of the proposed interventions, there are known probable consequences.  For example, sending sulfate particles up into the stratosphere could contribute to acid rain, further ozone layer depletion, and reduced rainfall.  Imagine the political ramifications as outcomes of these projects affect countries differently!

There is no doubt that geoengineering is a complex issue.  Benefits, risks, politics, cost and ethics must all be examined.  We also need international consensus.  Perhaps as is often the case with medicine, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — without the nasty side effects.  Can we pull our nations together to reduce our emissions voluntarily?  Or, is our planet already too sick to go without a geoengineered cure?

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Photo credit:  mira66 on flickr

Sources:
U.N. urged to freeze climate geo-engineering projects,” by Chris Fujioka.  Reuters, October 21, 2010. (accessed 1/13/11); “Lift-off:  Research into the possibility of engineering a better climate is progressing at an impressive rate—and meeting strong opposition,” The Economist, November 4, 2010.  (accessed 1/13/11); Wired Science:  Poll: Should Geo-Engineering Go Forward? (accessed 1/13/11); “Geo-Engineering: Our Last Option for Combating Climate Change,” by Ray Grigg.  Sierra Club BC (accessed 1/13/11)
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