I’ve always felt that there’s a certain irony in the suggestion that we can solve our current environmental woes by engaging in deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate. The warming of our planet is, after all, the result of our first—admittedly unwitting—experiment in “geoengineering,” and I am reminded of situations where a new species is deliberately introduced into an ecosystem to control an invasive pest and ends up causing unexpected problems of its own.
I am therefore glad to see the Royal Society add a healthy measure of realism to the geoengineering debate with their recently published report. As James Wilsdon tells us, it clearly demonstrates that none of the commonly proposed schemes is a magic bullet—a Hollywood-esque reset button for climate change. Some ideas, such as dumping aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space, may be effective but are also quite environmentally damaging in their own right; others, such as directly removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (perhaps using “artificial trees”) are more benign but much more expensive and based on as yet unproven technology. At best, geoengineering should be viewed as complementary to emissions cuts, rather than a replacement for them.
I would actually go further: Resorting to geoengineering cannot be viewed as anything other than a failure on our part. The problem we currently face is not just about the possible impact of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. The more fundamental issue is our species’ mad dash to consume the energy and mineral resources produced by hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of years of geological activity in a mere century or two. Much of the impetus behind geoengineering seems to be an attempt to cling to what could be referred to as “business as abnormal,” and shows that we have yet to grasp that our economies and populations cannot grow forever on a planet with finite space, resources, and carrying capacity. Building a sustainable and carbon-neutral energy infrastructure is an important step toward reining in our more profligate tendencies and securing the long-term future of our civilization. The current flirtation with geoengineering may well prove to be a dangerous distraction from this goal, in terms of both money and resources.
The distraction could waste political capital, too. Looking beyond the scientific issues, the Royal Society’s report also points out that “the greatest challenges to the successful deployment of geoengineering may be the social, ethical, legal, and political issues associated with governance, rather than scientiﬁc and technical issues.” Any attempt at large-scale climate manipulation will have a global impact, and thus a globally binding legal framework will need to be agreed beforehand. Which allows me to close with another ironic thought: Any such agreement, and the sustained mustering of the political will required to negotiate it, is precisely what is required if we are serious about cutting our greenhouse gas emissions. Investing our enthusiasm in the latter, rather than the former, would appear to offer a much better return for the same effort.
Originally published September 14, 2009