Geo-engineering: Yea or Nay?

Posted December 4, 2012 3:50 pm  

Newsweek says it loud and clear

Hurricane Sandy seems to have clinched the national debate on whether climate change is real and perilous. Now we have to find the political will to respond.

The solutions will all be challenging. We must not only construct storm surge barriers to protect coastal cities; we must find ways to reduce the CO2 that is causing the catastrophe.

We must thwart global warming, and there is more than one way.

Of course, we must immediately cut back on fossil fuel use and become more energy efficient. This is unlikely to happen soon, however, and it will be insufficient, in any case. Even if we immediately make the necessary changes, the climate will continue to warm because “the greenhouse effect is self-compounding,” as James Carroll wrote in his Boston Globe column of 11/26/12, The Earth Experiment. The pollution of the recent past has yet to be felt, but, no matter what we do to stop future pollution, it will be. We must do more then mend our ways.

Carroll was writing about another approach: geo-engineering, interventions that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere or reduce the earth’s absorption of heat. Among the techniques he mentions are: the “stratospheric dispersal of sulfur aerosols to mimic the light-dimming consequences of volcanic ash” and the “iron fertilization of the oceans to produce massive plankton blooms, which can repair broken aquatic food-chain webs, while lowering carbon dioxide levels.”

Carroll’s column is cautionary. He worries about engineering attempts that may make matters worse or the possibility of climate wars between “nations of the chilly north and the overheated south.” He worries about the moral dilemmas that await us as we intervene in nature in ways that may have unforeseen consequences and entail ethical compromises. He foresees the fight ahead between those who will argue for drastic measures carried out responsibly, and those who are already rallying around the slogan, “Hands off Mother Earth.”

Certainly, the geo-manipulations that will be necessary are frightening in their scope and experimental nature. Most of the industrial advances of the last centuries have had terrible environmental consequence that were unforeseen, so we can easily imagine a vast geo-engineering project going wrong.

In July 2012, a California businessman, Russ George, dumped 100 tons of iron sulphate into the Canadian Pacific, with the permission of a native American group who were promised a restoration of the salmon stock in their region. The intervention achieved a huge bloom in plankton which should draw the salmon but will also absorb CO2 during photosynthesis and drop to the ocean floor when it dies. George was denounced as a rogue geo-engineer and a violator of international treaties. Clearly this is not the way to proceed. George’s experiment not only violates treaties but is untried. Some scientists say it could have a negative impact on the ocean and even worsen global warming. The effects are still being studied, but if it does work we may be thanking George. Perhaps he got the ball rolling. Let’s hope he is right and Carroll  wrong.



share    site feed
write quick comment