The debate over geoengineering is intensifying | Greenbiz


In the film “The Avengers” (no, not that one), two British agents team up to stop Scottish mad scientist Sir August de Wynter from destroying the world with a weather-changing machine.

This science fiction was ahead of its time, although according to audiences, not the highest cinematic art (5 percent on the tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes). Today, geoengineering of this nature is gaining traction as a potential way to mitigate climate change — the theory is we have to throw everything we can at climate change to decrease the chances of worst case scenario outcomes and meet our decarbonization goals.

What was a fringe idea is now serious science

Over the years in trying to learn all I can about the climate crisis and what can be done about it, I’ve read a lot of books about climate change and climate science. These discussions mostly focus on how to transition to cleaner energy sources and what policy can be implemented to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Every once in a while, an author will bring up geoengineering, but the idea is usually dismissed outright as too dangerous due to unforeseen impacts or as a distraction that might tempt us to slow down on a transition to a lower carbon economy.

That is beginning to change. In late February, a group of 60 scientists called for accelerated research into partially blocking the sun to temporarily mitigate global warming. The science of the idea involves dispersing reflective particles in the atmosphere to temporarily reflect some sunlight to slightly lower the temperature of earth.

In 2022, a separate group of scientists called for a moratorium on geoengineering, arguing such science cannot be effectively governed by current international institutions and risks unintended consequences that may make matters worse.

If we come to the point where countries feel compelled to turn to geoengineering to address climate change, the greater the chance that geoengineering will lead to conflict.

A recent report published by the United Nations Environment Programme explored solar geoengineering, and concludes that, despite its great potential, the process is not viable or safe right now. In the report, UNEP calls for a global review of solar geoengineering technology and suggests an eventual multinational framework for how it should be governed. 

What’s the worst that can happen?  

Dust in the upper atmosphere isn’t the only geoengineering solution to emerge lately. In early February, scientists at the University of Utah published a paper about blowing millions of tons of moon dust into Earth’s atmosphere to partially block the sun’s rays, thereby cooling the planet.

Most talk about geoengineering is just talk. But this is beginning to change.

Solar geoengineering startup company Make Sunsets has already begun its own experiments. In early 2023, the company released three balloons carrying atmosphere-altering particles outside Reno, Nevada. The company says it has permission from local authorities and the Federal Aviation Administration, but officials at these organizations say no such permission was granted.

Make Sunsets is attempting to replicate the physical reactions that happen in the atmosphere after large volcanic eruptions that, for a short period, block out some sunlight and slightly cool the planet. In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines cooled the planet by about 0.5 degrees Celsius at its peak impact and was credited with some cooling of the planet for up to three years following the eruption.

There will be more Russ Georges

In 2012, an American businessman named Russ George dumped about 100 tons of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean in an effort to supercharge plankton growth. The science behind the idea is sound, at least the part about growing plankton. The iron is a favorite of plankton and is meant to supercharge plankton growth. The plankton would then consume more carbon-dioxide than normal, thus proving ocean iron seeding as a viable climate mitigation scheme.

In their 2022 book “Climate Restoration,” Peter Fiekowsky, an MIT educated physicist and engineer, and journalist Carole Douglas champion such ocean fertilization as one of the main weapons we should deploy against climate change. They also write about processes for trapping CO2 in cement for construction and harvesting methane from the ocean. It’s a good read, I recommend it to anyone curious about these issues.

However, not everyone agrees that ocean fertilization is a good idea.

According to Geoengineering Monitor, there have been numerous experiments with ocean fertilization, and for the most part they have not worked.

The practice also risks creating deoxygenated “dead zones” in the ocean. The reason for this is that the plankton (an algae in some cases) die and decompose after gorging themselves on iron or other food sources. This can cause “red tides” as billions of these microorganisms die. Their decomposition reduces oxygen levels decrease, in some cases low enough to kill marine life in the area. For these reasons the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution long ago adopted policies to strictly regulate ocean fertilization practices.

The worst that could happen is worse than just some dead fish

If we come to the point where countries feel compelled to turn to geoengineering to address climate change, the greater the chance that geoengineering will lead to conflict.

One country’s desire to cool temperatures to help its crops or people will undoubtedly affect other countries that did not sign up for such geoengineering experiments. When one country takes unilateral action that negatively affects one of its neighbors — well, that’s how wars start.  

Let’s do some science, but maybe have it done by real scientists

We should be conducting appropriate experiments to understand if any geoengineering solutions are actually helpful and not harmful. But the way to do them is through the scientific method with research peer reviewed and repeated by other scientists in other parts of the world to see if a breakthrough can be achieved to help mitigate climate change, without nasty unintended consequences.

Even if some geoengineering on some level works, we need to still go full steam ahead on weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and removing CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This is an “all of the above” situation.

That, and maybe more movies with mad weather scientists. May I propose a script featuring a mad female scientist whose father was killed in a freak ocean storm who wishes to tame the ocean through overzealous ocean fertilization. The scientist’s name: June Summers. It practically writes itself.

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