Over the centuries people have used natural resources to improve their livelihoods and many of the consequences of this exploit have failed to show up from the beginning. Now we are faced with many problems (pollution, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, etc) that are threatening not only the environment we live in, but also our capacity to sustain activities and develop. Among these many problems climate change is the most recently proved and one with severe global implications. Despite the inherent debate over its very existence and the role played by humans as opposed to the natural variability, there is now a general consensus among scientists that the challenge is real; in fact it is already happening and human actions are indeed responsible for its extent.
Of course people have also tried to come up with solutions to the problems they created. Varying in scope and approach, some solutions have been implemented while others are still being debated. With more technological advances than ever, geo-engineering, or the adoption of projects that tackle climate change directly by removing CO2 from the atmosphere or increasing the Earth’s radiative capacity, has appeared more prominently in the discussions as a measure with immediate results. Some examples include spreading of sulphur aerosols into the atmosphere to increase the albedo or adding iron into the ocean waters to enhance CO2-sequestrating algal blooms. However, the potential unknown consequences are still a major cause of concern. As it previously happened with many discoveries that were considered breakthroughs and chief benefits for the society, their side effects turned out to be more dangerous than the problem they were intended to solve (the DDT, the Aswan dam and even nuclear power, only to name a few).
The ones in favour of geo-engineering argue that the world we live in is sick and no separate action will reverse this. A whole lot of concomitant actions are needed. And perhaps geo-engineering is likely to buy us some time to figure out all the other important actions we should take. In many cases, like the melting of ice caps and implicitly, the threat to polar bears, time is running out already and this might be the only solution. Some supporters even suggest that, given the human tendency to only act when the situation is critical, eventually geo-engineering solutions are what we will end up using, so we might as well continue the research on them to at least have a better idea of the effects they might bring along.
Provided we do adopt some geo-engineering solutions, a question still remains regarding what would happen if some external factors would hinder or stop their application. Would this not create larger disruptions in the system and make us dependent on such solutions? Furthermore, the availability of technology for stopping global warming would probably make us more relaxed and drive us away from looking for solutions to the real problem: reducing CO2 emissions.
Technology has certainly conquered many successes and there will always be an innate curiosity to take it one step further, see what happens, break a record, etc. Many such advances are regarded with scepticism by the international community, as, despite their initial understandable motivation, they are at the edge of ethics, not to mention the unpredictability of their consequences (for example human cloning). In an article (that you can find here
) from 2008 professor Alan Robock from Rutgers University in New Jersey, outlines no less than 20 different reasons for which geo-engineering might not be the best approach, ranging from potential negative impacts on plants and animals and changes in the precipitation patterns to the possibility of abuses for military purposes and the commercial control of the technologies used.
Geo-engineering may be just the usual impulse of mankind to develop and improve the existing systems, but how do we know when we have gone too far? Technology appears to be a quick fix to everything that goes wrong and there are concerns over the fact that, by continuously researching and advancing technology, even with the stated purpose of enhancing existing knowledge, we will end up using that technology to actually control the planet even if we don’t really plan it or want it, but just because it is available to us at a certain moment in time. In fact, it looks like we have already done so and the consequences are proving more than we can handle.
Another observation is that geo-engineering seems to address more the symptoms than the disease itself. Instead of concentrating on the cause (i.e. human generated GHG emissions that lead to global warming) we are more concerned with addressing the outcomes (for example by artificial output of aerosols into the atmosphere in order to increase the albedo and lead to a cool down effect).
The money involved in geo-engineering research and implementation, much as the money involved in the fossil fuel industry nowadays, is a very powerful driver. The obvious resolutions, such as cutting back on fossil fuel or driving cars and changing our consumption patterns, are not economically efficient at this point. We already know what needs to be done but, since it is politically difficult to handle, not to mention unprofitable for companies, we just don’t do it and continue to claim more research is necessary to find a solution that can affect less out consumer-driven lifestyles. Wouldn’t some of the billions spent on geo-engineering research be put to better use by improving livelihoods and what’s left of the environment, while concentrating on the real issues with low-cost measures, such as tree planting or renewable energy?
Have we really exhausted all existing alternatives in terms of carbon cutting? Probably not, but we start to run out of time for trying them out and it might be soon the case that we will be forced to use geo-engineering in order to adapt to the new conditions, even though its consequences will not have been fully tested.
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Some of the questions and topics referred to above (and in some of the posts that will follow on the same issue) have been raised during the course Introduction to Sustainability, available at the University of Illinois. They certainly generate a lot of discussions and this is why we decided to explore them further. The statements made in this text are not meant to offer any answers and do not pretend to cover all possible aspects of a subject. They are merely an invitation to discover various facets of the sustainability debate, of which we believe all should be aware and a part of.
Image source: http://dge.stanford.edu/labs/caldeiralab/Geoengineering.html