The Sword of Damn-or-Please?

geoengineering

It is summer in the city, a time when the jackets finally begin to come off, and the fresh stench of warm street garbage begins intermingling with the fetid subway breeze. Yet, there is no denying that our climate is changing, with record low and high temperatures. What we are trying to say is that the weather is getting weirder, and the planet is getting hotter. Despite your political opinions, those are just the facts. The ocean is becoming more acidic, and storms are intensifying. We don’t know how many times we have to say it, but we -as a species and as a planet- are in trouble. Yet, there is an idea that has been gaining momentum lately, and its worth talking about: Geoengineering

Sharpening Science
Have you ever heard the myth of Damocles? He was constantly telling his king, Dionysus, how fortunate the man was to be king. How great it must be to have all the power, and the fortune, and the best wifi bandwidth. -presumably-  To shut him up, Dionysus gave Damocles a chance to sit on his throne and become king, but he also arranged to have a massively sharp sword hang over him, a hair’s width from his head. In the end, Damocles was begging to give up the throne and Dionysus resumed his position, presumably with a smug look on his face and a realization that he would have to change his HBO GO password… Well, the concept of geoengineering could be a lot like that.

To be clear, the number of weather related disasters have quadrupled since 1970, and this had led some scientists to consider if we should start changing our environment, on purpose. Geoengineering is the term given to a wide-variety of ideas and methods that some scientists believe could be used to reduce global temperature, reduce ocean acidity, and even begin removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere. The basic idea is that humans have been unintentionally changing our climate for generations, so maybe we should start intentionally affecting it for the better.

After all, it seems unlikely that we are going to be able to naturally keep the average global temperature from rising by less than 2 degree Celsius, and some scientists are talking about a few possible methods to artificially help our odds. The most recent and most prominent is solar engineering. This involves reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the planet’s surface. A 2006 NASA study showed that cooling the Earth by just 2% would offset even a doubling of our atmospheric carbon dioxide. In that study by Arizona astronomer Roger Angel, the method calls for a swarm of small sunshades deployed in low Earth orbit, which would defuse and redirect sunlight away from the planet. Giant mirrors or spacecraft is a feasible possibility, but are also expensive to maintain. Another pair of Harvard scientists are preparing a small scale experiment to test the feasibility of another -cheaper- method that would accomplish the same outcome, by using a method similar to one of Earth’s own natural processes. Using drones or aircraft to spray millions of tons of sulfate particles into the atmosphere would mimic the effects of a volcanic eruption, and would create a thin covering layer that would bounce sunlight back into space, thus cooling the Earth artificially. In 1815 the Tambora Eruption cooled the planet so much that Europe had a “year without summer.”

The method is similar to an idea had by oceanographer named John Martin who believed that dumping crystallized iron sulfate into the ocean would stimulate the growth of phytoplankton. The plankton naturally adsorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, thus they are capable of removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere, but this comes with a terrible Shyamalanian terrible twist. Iron fertilization, as the method was called, is not full proof and has been debated by scientists for decades. When phytoplankton die they attract bacteria that decompose their bodies. Those bacteria also eat up all the oxygen in the surrounding ocean, and create massive dead zones where no fish can live or survive. So we can remove all the excess CO2 from our atmosphere, but the price could very possibly be the creation of huge dead zones in the oceans where fish and other marine life are killed off at alarming rates. And this in a nutshell is the problem with geoengineering.

A Care’s Width
In a lot of scientific circles geoengineering is a dirty word. It is a whispered secret. It is the dark lord, Voldemort. Say its name too often and you will be terrified of what you find. That is because anytime we make a decision to change our planet, we are playing with both figurative and literal fire. Our planet is a complex interdependent web of systems and ecospheres that we do not yet fully understand. Affecting one aspect could adversely affect another, and in unknown and unpredictable ways. Return back to the idea of seeding iron sulfate particles into the atmosphere. It will help cool the planet, but it may also create massive storms. Specifically, scientists have found that injecting sulfate into the Northern hemisphere would result in massive tropical cyclones in the Southern hemisphere, and vice versa. That brings us to the next problem with geoengineering.

Politics is a huge problem with this whole process. As a planet we can barley agree on where to hold the Olympics every two years. How the hell are we ever going to agree on where and how we should start a geoengineering project. The simple fact is that altering the atmosphere is going to artificially create winners and losers. Sulfate injections in the North would create milder temperatures and less hurricanes, but would also create massive droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa. Doing the opposite would create rainfall in Africa, but would send massive hurricanes hurtling toward the continental United States. So, who wins and who loses? Do only the rich countries -the ones that can afford expensive geoengineering projects- get to accomplish them, and thus begin a cycle of even more massive disparity between the them and the developing countries of the world? Does all of this kick off some sort of odd global climate war, where each hemisphere competes to stabilize their region and screw over everyone else? That is the sort of problem with these projects. There are no easy answers in a world of winners and losers.

But say we figure it. Maybe the UN sets up a global weather commission that monitors and regulates our atmosphere. They are apolitical and follow only the data and not country allegiances. We start a massive global campaign that lowers the temperature of our planet back down to pre-industrial levels. Everything starts to calm down. Hurricanes no longer bury cities. The seas stop rising. Droughts become less frequent and the seasons become milder and more predictable. That is great, but there is still a huge wall of unpredictable things that could happen. What if a massive volcano erupts, like the 1912 Alaskan eruption of Katmai. Suddenly, that carefully regulated amount of sulfate we put into the atmosphere is doubled in one hemisphere, and like a cat thrown as a carefully balanced scale it sends everything into a tailspin of claws and hissing.

Or say everything is going along swimmingly and suddenly Russia decides that it wants to pull out of the weather commission, or we just decide that after a decade or so, we don’t need to be spending our money on this crap anymore. After all, “We haven’t had a climate disaster in over a decade. We are fine.” -You know as Americans tend to do- Well, stopping a geoengineering project after it has started could be even worse. Deliberately cooling the planet over a long period of time would mask the true impact of the climate build up going on behind the scenes. Stopping it suddenly would mean that the Earth would not warm over a period of years, but over a period of months. This would cause a rapid climate shift, which would decimate ecospheres. Animals would not have time to adapt or migrate to the new weather and we would end up causing much much more harm than if we had just let it happen naturally and slowly.

An Inconvenient Throne
Geoengineering is unpredictable, but in all seriousness we may not be able to rule it out. Many scientist fear that by even talking about the topic we are doing more harm than good. After all, if people think we have a quick and easy way to science our way out of carbon dioxide rise and climate change, than it takes away our urgency and incentive to cut down on CO2, recycle, reduce, reuse, etc. Humans are lazy will always try to take the path of least resistance. The only problem is that the path of geoengineering is fraught with unknown dangers and possible global catastrophes. It is not an easy fix-all.

Yet, it may also be a path we need to walk down, at least tentatively. Even through our best faith efforts with renewable and green initiatives -and despite the incompetence and ignorance of some orange-skinned world leaders– we could still be heading toward massive climate shifts in the coming decades. Geoengineering could be the answer to at least slowing things down before a more permanent solution could be found. yet, there is no denying that it is a double-edged sword, and we need to be careful on how we hang it over our heads.

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