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The Devil’s in the Side Effects

Geoengineering solutions to climate change are dangerous, especially when unauthorized.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Even as he was claiming that climate change had not been proven, President George Bush convened a quiet conference to discuss geoengineering, the manipulation of the climate to retard global warming. Then and later, many measures—including some that seemed to be borrowed from second-rate sci-fi movies and comics—have been put forward by scientists who believe the influence of the coal and petroleum lobbies will continue to block widespread political action to cut the use of fossil fuels.

Among the measures suggested: placing enormous mirrors in space to reflect light away from the earth; spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the atmosphere (an artificial replication of the phenomenon sometimes seen when volcano eruptions that send particulate into the air are followed by cooling); creating artificial trees to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere; and dropping metal dust into the ocean to aid the proliferation of carbon-absorbing algae, to name a few.

Now Britain’s Royal Academy is advocating that geoengineering measures be developed and studied. At issue are cost, feasibility—how do you mount mirrors large enough to reflect away a significant amount of glare?—and secondary effects on the environment that might backfire dangerously. Sulphate aerosols, for example, could damage the ozone layer even as they exercised a cooling effect.

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There is also the matter of monitoring and coordinating any such measures within a framework of international law.

In July, a rogue experiment in regional climate manipulation was carried out by a California businessman named Russ George, who dumped 100 tons of iron dust into the Pacific Ocean off Canada. George induced the Haida nation to pay him to dump the iron because he told them it would enrich the ocean off the Haida Gwaii islands, where they fish. Experts now say “geo-vigilante” George has probably violated the London Convention, which prohibits the dumping of waste into oceans. And the introduction of iron dust into large swaths of ocean can destroy marine life, even create dead zones.

Geoengineering, the quick fix to a problem nobody has the political will to deal with in the proper way, is dangerous for a host of reasons. There is, for example, the possibility that those with the resources will go rogue and do something that will endanger millions without their knowledge or consent.

As Naomi Klein, author of Disaster Capitalism, wrote in a recent opinion piece on George’s action for the New York Times, “The geopolitical ramifications are chilling. Climate change is already making it hard to know whether events previously understood as ‘acts of God’ (a freak heat wave in March or a Frankenstorm on Halloween) still belong in that category. But if we start tinkering with the earth’s thermostat—deliberately turning our oceans murky green to soak up carbon and bleaching the skies hazy white to deflect the sun — we take our influence to a new level. A drought in India will come to be seen—accurately or not—as a result of a conscious decision by engineers on the other side of the planet. What was once bad luck could come to be seen as a malevolent plot or an imperialist attack.”

It’s fair to say that the world has never been faced with a more radical choice than whether to attempt climate correction with tools that might become, in themselves, weapons of climate-based mass destruction. Klein asks: “Wouldn’t it be better to change our behavior—to reduce our use of fossil fuels—before we begin fiddling with the planet’s basic life-support systems?”

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