As the effects of climate change “begin to frighten us, geoengineering will come to dominate global politics,” predicts Clive Hamilton, in his must-read new book, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering (Yale University Press, 2013).
He may be right. Shortly before the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part (“Summary for Policymakers”) of its fifth climate report on September 27, Russia called for the report to include a statement that geoengineering is a possible solution to the problem of climate change. To the surprise of some, the final paragraph of the Summary did address geoengineering.
Geoengineering (here synonymous with climate engineering) is “the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects.” It is usually divided into two types: methods to extract greenhouse gases (GHG) from the atmosphere and store them somewhere safe, and solar radiation management to cool the planet by blanketing it in sulphate particles. Some proposals would manipulate the Earth’s cloud cover or change the oceans’ chemical composition.
The IPCC Summary noted the limitations of carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management proposals, as well as the limited evidence to quantitatively assess them. It stated that both have “side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale,” adding that even if solar radiation management were feasible, it would change the global water cycle without solving the problem of ocean acidification.
Scientists around the world, including in the West, Russia, and China, are working on geoengineering. Richard Branson has created a prize, the Virgin Earth Challenge, for sustainable and scalable ways of removing GHG from the atmosphere. He emphasizes that geoengineering isn’t a substitute for cutting carbon emissions. Geoengineering also appeals to the fossil fuel industry and to climate science deniers in the West who envision a technological fix that would eliminate the need to switch from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy. Geoengineering suits Russia’s carbon agenda and has immediate appeal to China.
Hamilton is skeptical and eloquently conveys his essential message: “When we mess with ecological systems, things soon become much more complicated than they first seem, and as the complications multiply so do the uncertainties and the dangers.”
Unlike GHG removal proposals, solar radiation management would only mask the effects of climate change, not address its causes. Dimming the globe with sulphate aerosols not only would “manipulate the primary source of energy that makes the Earth a living planet,” as Hamilton states, but if the program were abruptly terminated, there would be a dangerous sudden leap in global temperatures without any time for the ecosystem to adapt.
In a recent ThinkProgress interview, Hamilton discusses the surprising extent of the geoengineering lobby and the need for climate campaigners and environmental groups to engage with the issue.
Public engagement is crucial. Every country in the world is now free to conduct its own climate engineering experiments on whatever scale it chooses, with unknown consequences for our planetary home. This must change.