The Biggest Band-Aid of All

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It has taken me a few weeks to catch up with this blockbuster report. Researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK have published a report analyzing the potential of several geoengineering schemes to reverse the projected increase in global temperature due to the greenhouse effect. I have not been able to obtain the whole report. This summary comes from ScienceDaily. Geoengineering refers to massive applications of technology to change properties of the earth on a large-scale and produce counter-effects to those of continuing emissions of greenhouse gases from economic activities. The key findings include:
  • Enhancing carbon sinks could bring CO2 back to its pre-industrial level, but not before 2100 - and only when combined with strong mitigation of CO2 emissions.
  • Surprisingly, existing activities that add phosphorous to the ocean may have greater long-term carbon sequestration potential than deliberately adding iron or nitrogen.
  • On land, sequestering carbon in new forests and as ‘bio-char’ (charcoal added back to the soil) have greater short-term cooling potential than ocean fertilisation.
  • Stratospheric aerosol injections and sunshades in space have by far the greatest potential to cool the climate by 2050 - but also carry the greatest risk.
  • Increasing the reflectivity of urban areas could reduce urban heat islands but will have minimal global effect.
  • Other globally ineffective schemes include ocean pipes and stimulating biologically-driven increases in cloud reflectivity.
  • The beneficial effects of some geo-engineering schemes have been exaggerated in the past and significant errors made in previous calculations.
The lead author of this report, Professor Tim Lenton, was careful to note that “We found that some geoengineering options could usefully complement mitigation, and together they could cool the climate, but geoengineering alone cannot solve the climate problem.” One of my concerns with this and other similar projects is that proponents will omit the last clause. An over-reliance on technological fixes has contributed to the current state of the world as people everywhere turn to the technical experts and expect them to solve the problem of environmental and social collapse.

A second concern is that however massive the models used to predict and design these geoengineering "solutions," they cannot "understand" the real complexity of the systems they will profoundly interact with and change. Such solutions are reflections of the arrogance of modern science and engineering in the face of complexity--a reluctance, either deliberate or unconscious, to accept that systems as big as the globe behave in ways that we cannot fully describe, that is, know. In such cases, it is prudent to move slowly such that we can learn as we go and be able to apply mid-course corrections. Geoengineering requires that we do the opposite and start at heroic scales. The findings above note that the interval between the time of application and the realization of the effects can be as much as almost a century.

It might seem morally correct to apply such remedies if no other course appears available that will save the many, many lives that are predicted to be lost as the globe heats up beyond the level considered to pose reasonable risks. But missing in this argument is the presumption that life as we know it today in the affluent nations will continue more or less as it is today. And is it morally correct to make decisions today that will not take full effect for several generations? If it is true that our way of life is a contributor to the threat of global warming (and I do believe that it is), isn't the moral path to reexamine deeply how we can live and flourish in ways that will not continue to damage the world and its inhabitants, especially those who will suffer from our profligacy far into the future.

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