The Risks of Geoengineering

posted by Alex Kotran on January 10, 2013 at 4:48 pm

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algaeOver the summer, this blog reported on the potential for technological solutions to global warming. There is evidence, for example, that solar-radiation management (SRM) – spraying reflective aerosols into the atmosphere to block sunlight – can appreciably lower the earth’s temperature by several degrees. In a future where 6+ degree warming is a reality, it’s easy to imagine there being strong political support for a quick fix. Despite geoengineering’s promise, however, the technology may present challenges to global security.

Whether or not climate geoengineering could be done safely is tremendously controversial. An SRM-style project would necessarily occur on a global scale, and while we have the tools to predict the effect it might have on average global temperatures, it is impossible to forecast how those changes would manifest regionally.

Research suggests that reflecting sunlight may reduce summer monsoon precipitation over India and China, producing a devastating drought in Southeast Asia. Other scientists conclude that geoengineering could disrupt rainfall patterns over Europe and North America.  We have no way to know for sure because, even if the international community reverses previous objections to conducting large-scale experiments, separating the effects of geoengineering and random yearly weather variation is impossible.

Unfortunately, while cooperation is essential for tackling issues like carbon emissions, it will not be so for certain geoengineering experiments. Exemplifying this point is the story of American entrepreneur Russ George, who ignored international condemnation and executed a plan to seed the Pacific Ocean with iron to stimulate a 3,800 square mile plankton bloom. Scientists around the world were appalled at the scheme for the significant, possibly unknown, risks to ocean ecology. The event is even more worrisome because it demonstrates that isolated, relatively low-funded actors have access to technology that can profoundly manipulate the global ecosystem.

Scientists estimate that SRM technology would cost under $10 billion. While not exactly cheap, the price tag would put it within reach of many nations, presenting them with opportunities for unilateral action.

Stopping lesser power or rogue actors would be hard enough, but the real trouble will come if climate change pressures a major power like the U.S. or China into rash action that threatens other nations’ food or water supply. As the effects of global warming intensify over the next century, countries will likely weigh unilateral geoengineering regardless of whether the international community is able to reach a consensus.

Perhaps the greatest danger posed by geoengineering, though, is that it could justify present-day complacency in ignoring carbon emissions. It isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario where politicians shift from denying climate science to insisting that costly preventive measures are inferior to a reparative solution down the road. It also isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario where reparative geoengineering goes terribly awry.


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