The Case for Geoengineering: or, how to use a short-term solution for long-term sustainability

Electric Towers During Golden Hour by Pixabay

As of December of 2020, over 33 countries have declared a climate emergency in the face of our rapidly warming planet. As of January of this year, the global land and ocean temperature was recorded at 0.88 degrees Celsius above the average for the 20th century. The planet is rapidly changing with more intense storms every year and sea levels rising with unprecedented speed. This begs the question: how can we prevent the rapidity in which the world is changing to implement long-lasting change?

According to Earth System and some climate scientists, a solution to at least ease climate change changes is geoengineering, particularly solar geoengineering. Solar geoengineering focuses on reflecting solar heat and radiation into space to prevent the planet’s external heating. The proposed solar geoengineering methods are: increasing land coverage, planting more trees and foliage and preventing deforestation, and a very experimental idea known as stratospheric aerosol scattering.

Now, what is stratospheric aerosol scattering, and why does it sound so scary? In essence, stratospheric aerosol scattering is a method of introducing tiny, reflective particles such as sulphate or carbonate aerosols into the upper atmosphere, the stratosphere to be specific, in which they would reflect sunlight into space. This idea, at first glance, seems a bit suspect. Introducing chemical compounds into the sky seems counterintuitive and quite dangerous. That is until you realize that the idea of stratospheric aerosol scattering is based on the cooling effect volcanic eruptions have on a global scale and that we’re doing this already, except it takes the form of pollution. So, why not do it more intelligently?

It has been established by climate scientists that speed is of the essence when confronting our global climate emergency, as it has been established that aerosol scattering at the lower stratospheric level is the most global and effective in reflecting sunlight and solar heat. It presents an opportunity to quickly nullify the most detrimental concerns of climate change for the short term.

This isn’t an end-all solution to our climate crisis, however. To advocate for this kind of solution is to acknowledge that we simply need more time to implement long-term, systemic, and political climate action. Our climate goals are increasingly seeming out of reach at the scale we are implementing significant change — which, admittedly, is not fast enough.

Solar geoengineering will provide an opportunity for our policies to catch up. It’ll ease our collective anxiety over the melting ice-caps and reduce the sense of urgency we are currently, or should be, operating under. We are already geoengineering with fossil fuel production, but now we need to do it with intent. We are already agents of environmental and climate change, so to reverse our mistakes, we need to take it upon ourselves to reduce the effects our emissions have caused not only within our communities but also globally. We owe it to ourselves and our planet to take responsibility for our actions and not sit back and hope for nature to take over. It is much faster to take direct action to assume the moral responsibility of intelligent climate engineering than to sit and wait for some grand movement to occur idly. In any case, this is much more practical than hoping for the next supervolcano to erupt and shield the earth “naturally.”

Of course, there are risks to this, and they’re essential to keeping in mind when moving forward in our engagement with sustainability. Widespread concern and one that needs addressing are what is called Moral Hazard. Lizzie Burns explains Moral Hazard in her Technology Factsheet Series on Solar Geoengineering published by Harvard’s Belfer Center in 2019. She explains that:

There is a serious concern that talking about, researching, and /or deploying solar geoengineering will reduce incentives to cut emissions — this problem is often referred to as “moral hazard.” Some fossil fuel interests will likely seek to exploit solar geoengineering to block mitigation.

The advocation for solar geoengineering acknowledges that moral hazard is a real risk, but it is also a call to action to counter this response. Advocating for solar climate engineering recognizes that this is a band-aid response to a much larger problem that will not heal the wound but instead serves to numb the symptoms while further treatment can be prescribed.

However, there is the catch with aerosol scattering in that we don’t know all the side effects this process will have in the long term. There are fears by scientists and Burns records that ultimately, this process is unpredictable and unknown. As she explains, predicting the climate’s response to geoengineering is “closely related to the problem of predicting the response to other anthropogenic influences, such as aerosol pollution.”

Much like our current situation of rapidly increasing carbon emissions and CO2 output in the form of pollution, we don’t know its effects on the climate and the environment. It is near impossible to predict because, in the entire history of the Earth, we are just now experiencing the realm of the Anthropocene. Humans are the movers and the shakers of the Earth. We determine what we want our future to look like, what we wish to see long-term — our expectations from our planet. We seek to preserve our species, our environments, and the species we cohabitate with, so we need to take the initiative and assume our role as an active and intelligent member in our ecosystem, not just a passive one.

We owe it to ourselves and our planet to not only assume our role as members within nature but do so intelligently.

Based in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, NS. Scholar and freelance writer. Contributing writer and critical editor at Ecology and Action magazine. Hoping to make my mark.