Climate engineering: a contentious solution

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

In case you haven’t heard, this rock we call Earth is getting a little stuffy.  

Although skeptics remain, the majority of the world’s scientists and major world leaders agree: Global warming is real, and humans are the cause.  

The controversy now is how we are going to combat this human-induced rise in temperature. At the G8 convention in July, leaders of the world’s most advanced nations settled upon a goal of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050 with certain countries, such as America, aiming to reduce individual emissions by 80 percent.

Even still, there are plenty who remain pessimistic as to whether governments will be able to (or want to) meet these goals. In response to these worries and rising concerns for the disastrous effects of continued warming, there is a growing movement within the scientific community to start large-scale funding for the research and testing of much more drastic measures.

Climate engineering, or geo-engineering, technology that artificially counterbalances global warming, is a burgeoning area of interest. As the New York Times recently reported, possible methods include: “sun-blocking particles or shades; tinkering with clouds to make them more reflective; removing vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.”

My belief in the importance of scientific innovation and exploration knows few bounds, but the thought of intentionally meddling with Earth’s temperature even makes me queasy. Our track record when it comes to recognizing the complexity of Earth and the causal effects of climate has not exactly been humankind’s strong suit.  

Unfortunately, I too remain skeptical of the concerted effort to curb the current warming trend, and it seems that at least investing in this type of research is necessary. If ice caps continue to melt, oceans continue to rise, unusual weather patterns persist and direct intervention becomes unavoidable, we should be armed with knowledge based on research rather than engaging in a spur-of-the-moment last-ditch effort based on speculation. However, using these technologies should remain our very, very last resort. 

The methods that have to do with manually altering the makeup of the atmosphere raise the biggest red flags. Considered one of the cheapest possible methods of climate engineering,  establishing sunshades in the stratosphere by using sulfate or aerosol particles deeply concerns me, and I fear the possible ramifications. One worry of experts is that we could affect patterns of rainfall, causing severe droughts.     

Granted, as National Geographic reported, this is already the way Earth has been cooled repeatedly in the past by volcanic eruptions such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which lowered the the planet’s average temperature by roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit until the sulfur fell back to Earth. A manually created sunshade from sulfate or aerosol particles would also have to deal with this issue, resulting in periodic injections into the atmosphere. 

To combat this dispersal problem, there has also been the much more expensive and time-consuming proposal to launch “trillions of two-foot-wide, thinner-than-Kleenex discs of silicon nitride … into space between Earth and the sun, where they could deflect light,” National Geographic reported. Here, too, the unknowns are many. If we are manually cooling Earth and a natural coolant such as a large volcano erupts, I shudder to imagine the possible chain of events. 

Because it seems more controllable, I am less threatened by cloud brightening.  This method consists of a flotilla of ships that would traverse the oceans and spray mists of seawater into the air, creating brighter low-lying clouds to reflect more of the sun's rays.  Although cloud brightening is also laden with unknowns, if the results are negligible or even negative, disbanding some ships seems easier than  recollecting trillions of discs floating around in space or coaxing particles out of the atmosphere. Talk about job creation.

The method I am most comfortable with also happens to be the one that some argue we already possess the proper technology to execute. The idea of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere seems the most logical and least intrusive.  At this point and given our history, I favor ideas that have to do with removal rather than any sort of addition.

Perhaps what is most worrisome about climate engineering is the very reason why some find it so appealing. The goal of a global initiative that can work together relatively quickly to accomplish vast reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is a daunting one, and a few countries with the technology, money and initiative could take the issue head on until this goal is reached. But at what point does possibly halting Earth's rising temperature justify a few toying with the fate of many — and possibly even the Earth?

Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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