As time has passed without any serious action being taken to mitigate climate change, scientists have had to adjust their models to account for our continuing high levels of carbon emissions. Accordingly, their predictions have evolved, and not in a positive way. The world of the future looks ever bleaker with each year that goes by. In fact, some scientists are beginning to accept the realization that at this point, there is no way to halt impending disaster through reduction in greenhouse gas emissions alone. Something more drastic has to be done if we want to preserve our planet as we know it today.
Instead of reducing carbon emissions, therefore, heads are turning toward the notion of mitigating them. This means actually intervening in the earth’s climate system, as opposed to taking preventative measures against negatively affecting it. This still relatively unexplored practice is called geoengineering.
There are two main types of geoengineering: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM).
Carbon dioxide removal is the process of taking carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere. There are a number of different methods for doing so, although the practice is not yet widespread. There is still much development to be done, and the costs of carbon capture and removal are as of yet undetermined. Many speculate that they will be prohibitively high.
Solar radiation management, on the other hand, is the process of actually controlling the amount of solar radiation delivered to the earth’s atmosphere by reflecting it back out to space. As with CDR, there are several SRM options: for example, cloud seeding and stratospheric aerosol injection.
A mere several years ago, the thought of geoengineering rendered a giant question mark in people’s minds. Many stood against the idea of taking such serious steps toward actually controlling the earth’s climate. The objections were widely ranged: the risks are huge, the unknowns are great, and who are we to be playing God anyway? Today, though the practice still remains quite controversial, it is being taken more seriously throughout the scientific community.
The risks, unknowns, and moral debates surrounding the matter, however, have not changed. Relatively little has been done to explore the effects—both positive and negative—that geoengineering practices would bring. Speculation primarily dominates objectors’ arguments, but it also fuels proponents’ reasoning.
Some heavy political questions will also need to be addressed at some point, if geoengineering is to become a real option. Because experimentation would necessitate a large physical area, running tests would require sign-off from the bundle of neighboring countries that would be affected. And if geoengineering is deemed an option worth pursuing, who gives the go-ahead to apply it to the entire planet? Does every nation need to give its consent, since every nation would be affected? Who’s in charge of this common area?
While these difficult questions remain unanswered, some citizens aren’t waiting to take action. Some are taking measures into their own hands, despite the flagrant violations of international codes they face by doing so. One American businessman, Russ George, opted to pursue a highly controversial ocean fertilization scheme in July of 2012. After his idea was rejected by the Ecuadorian and Spanish governments when he proposed massive iron ore dumps near the Canary and Galapagos Islands, he moved to the Canadian coast to carry out the plan. Since then, he has been under tough scrutiny from numerous critics worldwide. Though his heart may be in the right place (although we aren’t certain about that), the potential ramifications of undertaking such a large-scale, relatively unresearched experiment are quite complex. Messing with the oceans could have very negative, long-term effects that future generations (of many species) will have to face.
Clearly, the debate is complex and riddled with uncertainties. However, our planet isn’t going to wait for us to figure things out. Climate change is happening, and it’s not just going to be put on pause because we need more time. After all, as Foreign Affairs journal has put it, “That nations are talking seriously about climate engineering is a sign of just how sick the planet has become.”