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Geo-Engineering; Or, If You Thought Accidentally Modifying The Planet Was Bad...

Geo-Engineering; Or, If You Thought Accidentally Modifying The Planet Was Bad...

Hello, and welcome back to When/If, the newsletter for people that can't sleep at night not knowing every bad thing ever and can't sleep at night after knowing every bad thing ever. I had a not-very-restful period following the anniversary of an awful thing, but we should probably get back to work before there's simply too much to cover. Thank you for bearing with me while I stepped away for a bit.

Today, I wanted to take a look at one very specific problem. You've almost certainly heard of geo-engineering by now, or perhaps heard it called solar radiation modification. This is the practice of modifying the Earth's atmosphere (usually) in order to reflect solar radiation back out into space. This is done to mitigate the increase in warmth brought about by climate change–or at least that's why we're talking about it. A Bond villain may have other goals.

We have engaged in accidental geo-engineering for ages now–and climate change itself is anthropogenic geo-engineering. In that same vein, the old saw of sulphur emissions is a method of geo-engineering that we have been drawing down, and the consequences of which have only recently been felt in the sharp uptick in absorbed solar energy. But engaging in intentional geo-engineering with the intended outcome of mitigating climate change is a dangerous idea, and for a lot of reasons.

We Don't Know What We Don't Know

Climate change as a subject is, one could argue, nearly two hundred years old. The first theories on CO2 and its interaction with our atmosphere reach back into the 1800s. And yet, we don't know a lot of the details of climate change. This is not because our scientists aren't smart, or are bought out, or anything–it's just that we literally have to study the entire planet in order to have a grasp on everything climate change affects because climate change affects everything. And that is a vicious cycle, itself. Climate change affects climate change, and so on, such that it's difficult to know for certain the outcome of, say, the slowdown of AMOC, because the slowdown of AMOC might affect the slowdown of AMOC. Let alone all the other things the slowdown of AMOC may affect. (Which then, in turn, affect the slowdown of AMOC.)

The same is true of geo-engineering. We don't precisely know how a project meant to substantially cut solar radiation absorption could affect much of anything beyond its stated goal–if we can even guarantee that to be accurate. Among the known possible side-effects of geo-engineering is a shift in weather patterns. This, right out of the box, is enough to push pause in my opinion, as it's basically recreating some of the problems of climate change. Shifts in weather patterns doesn't mean "a little more rainy" or "a little less rainy." We're talking climatic changes that could ruin agriculture for entire countries, for seasons at a time, depending on the size of the project. This would likely kill or upset the lives of as many people as it would be likely to save.

We're speaking pretty vaguely, right now. Let's take things into more concrete terms and examples–and examples of how this is already happening with or without your consent.

Historical and Present Examples of Geo-Engineering

The truth is, there's nothing stopping anyone from engaging in geo-engineering right now. In fact, all you have to do is have the materials, and sign a form. Doing it, of course, is likely more difficult than you think, but companies across the globe are getting ready to experiment with SRM and some already have engaged in it. Last year, a company called Make Sunsets launched weather balloons full of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. The intention there was to reflect sunlight back out into space the same way that sulphur pollutants do. The actual effect of this experiment was, of course, minimal, but that may not be the case for long.

Scientists have been experimenting for years with iron deposition in the oceans. Iron is a nutrient necessary for photosynthesis, and is considered one of the limitations of the proliferation of phytoplankton–photosynthesizing plankton which are one of the foundational organisms of the world's ecosystem. Should we fertilize the ocean with iron, it is expected that we would see a "bloom," of phytoplankton, which is ultimately meant to draw down carbon and promote oceanic health. The downside of this is that the carbon drawdown is minimal, and we risk creating harmful blooms that choke out other life and become noxious. There's always another side to the sword.

Countries engage in geo-engineering, too–and this is where things get really tricky. The United Arab Emirates have utilized cloud-seeding technology to literally make it rain. The thing is, you're not creating rain from nothing–you're taking extant moisture and making it fall where, presumably, it wasn't going to fall. When one country in a relatively arid region does that next to another, saying you've stolen rainfall is not a hard argument to make. No one has lobbed that accusation yet, but, I'd wager it's a matter of time.

Now, imagine a country in dire straits engages in a massive SRM project, meant to cool down their region by several degrees. Say this is life-saving, even, as in the fictional example put forth by Kim Stanley Robinson in Ministry for the Future. Say India initiates a huge SRM campaign, pushing millions of tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Those sulphur particles don't remain over India. They pass on, both mediating solar radiation across the globe and polluting the atmosphere as the initial sulphur dioxide pollution we've been trying to eliminate does. Pollution, generally speaking, kills literally millions of people per year. So while I'm sure folks will say they're not simply polluting in order to mediate solar radiation, I am equally sure that it will not simply be a healthy addition to the air.

The Case for

The thing is, we are running out of options for keeping the planet habitable. As climate change accelerates, and we continue to emit more greenhouse gases, the window in which net or absolute zero CO2 emissions works as a solution closes faster and faster. If we have not reached fatal tipping points, we will very soon. What comes after that is either the virtual extinction of our species and most others, or we try to game the system some new way–like with geo-engineering. James Hansen, whose recent paper on baked-in warming from CO2 emissions is essentially gospel among the more pessimistic of climate junkies, has stated that solar radiation modification will be necessary to save the planet. And he could very well be right. It may be necessary that we gum up the natural works of the planet further in order to save our skin. But it's truly, truly, risky to do so. We do not know enough about climate change, let alone this potential solution, and everyone from start-ups to governments have already begun to gamble. A best-case scenario for the implementation of geo-engineering is that climate change is kept in check until we're able to draw down all the excess carbon we've emitted.

That is, by the way, another problem with geo-engineering: once we pull the trigger we have to keep pulling it, as it only masks our current and future emissions. Should we stop geo-engineering early, this results in what is called "termination shock," which is just as bad as it sounds. The world is catapulted forward into all the climate change we averted up to that point. It's a catastrophic scenario and one we have to bear in mind if we're going to take the plunge.

For us on the ground, the cure is about as bad as the disease. We won't be able to simply go about our business, as our climate will likely not be steadied as much as it will be stabilized in the critically-ill sense. And we will constantly have to be on the lookout for further perturbations from geo-engineering or from their sudden halt. In short, we're not out of the woods even if they say we are; we will have just found ourselves in a different dark forest.