The New Dilemma: Geoengineering the Earth’s Climate
As planet Earth quickly passes the point-of-no-return in the runaway greenhouse effect that could eventually destroy life on our planet, the focus is turning more and more to ways to “geoengineer” the Earth’s climate. This is certainly not a new concept. Efforts at cloud seeding to locally increase rainfall and improve agricultural output was suggested as early as the late 1800s, and actual demonstrations of this technology have been ongoing for the last fifty years with mixed results. The difference now is that scientists, policy makers, and others are discussing large-scale efforts using more sophisticated technologies.
Cloud seeding is a simple technology. Chemicals such as silver iodide, potassium iodide, and carbon dioxide are injected into the atmosphere using airplanes, rockets, or balloons. These chemicals then serve as the nuclei upon which moisture from clouds can condense, resulting in increased precipitation, usually in the form of rain or snow. Nearly every major country across Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia has engaged in some form of cloud seeding. It is also practiced in Australia and in a few countries in Africa.
Modern technologies to modify Earth’s climate are currently being investigated by researchers all over the world, including CalTech, Cornell, Harvard, and MIT in the U.S. and many other institutions worldwide. The U.S. Department of Energy has several national laboratories engaged in climate and atmospheric research, and other federal agencies, such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, are laser-focused on these topics. Some of these technologies include things like “brightening” marine clouds to better reflect the sun’s rays, “fertilizing” oceans so algae will consume more carbon dioxide, and capturing/removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in an inert material (carbon sequestration).
What’s the concern?
Every major technological jump we humans make has its downsides. As man began to explore the heavens, there were concerns that nations might try to weaponize space. We now have nearly 3,000 functional satellites actively orbiting the Earth according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, and while the vast majority are commercial satellites, there is a large and growing number of defense-related (spy) satellites. In the field of genetics, we have ethical concerns over genetic engineering and cloning. So far, the public is mostly okay with genetically modifying agricultural products and cloning some animal species, like “Dolly” the sheep, so long as we do not apply those same technologies to humans. Memories of the sadistic and devastating eugenics movement of the last century has been able to keep human genetic engineering mostly in check, and advances in the field have mostly been a good thing, like tailoring cancer therapies for individuals and identifying individual susceptibilities to certain diseases. More recently, with the rise of the internet, we face privacy concerns over personal data collected by web-based companies and spying through internet-connected devices, like doorbells and even baby monitors.
These concerns will pale in comparison to the potential issues surrounding geoengineering or climate engineering. Atmospheric systems are complex, and although humans have developed advanced technologies to theoretically effect a change in weather (short term) and climate (long term), we do not really know the consequences with any level of certainty. How often has your local weatherman been correct with his rainfall or snowfall predictions? How often has the national weather service accurately predicted the path of a hurricane, tropical storm, tornado, or other force of nature? Weather is a chaotic system and cannot, by its very nature, be predicted with any level of certainty or precision. In his now famous 1972 paper, MIT professor Edward Lorenz asked, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” This classic article led to the term ‘Butterfly Effect’ describing how small changes can have large effects, especially over time.
We already know that, left unabated, global climate change will alter the current oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns, shifting the location, duration, and intensity of storms; altering patterns of flooding, droughts, and wildfires; and as a by-product of those forces, destroying homes and critical infrastructure. Ecological changes could easily give rise to increased geopolitical tensions. Many scholars attribute Syria’s civil war to prolonged, severe drought. I am not going to debate the merits of that argument, but it is not a stretch to say that climate change could fuel geopolitical tensions.
Besides the unpredictability of our planet’s atmospheric system, another major issue affecting climate engineering will be difficulty in getting consensus, coordination, or cooperation amongst all nations of the world. We cannot even reach a consensus on reducing global carbon emissions, so how could we possibly reach a consensus on how best to engineer a solution to climate change? Each country will likely take a unilateral approach that could range anywhere from doing nothing to implementing large-scale geoengineering projects narrowly aimed at solving their own country’s unique problems. To say this would be disastrous is an understatement. Any unilateral effort runs the risk of improving conditions in one region while simultaneously creating an ecological disaster in another. And if you think climate change can create geopolitical tensions, engineering a solution that adversely impacts a neighboring country’s situation will lead to an all-out war.
So, what is the solution? I am not qualified to answer that question, but I will offer some parting thoughts. I think all countries of the world must come together and discuss the prospect of large-scale climate engineering. The first step toward this will be when U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden has the U.S. rejoin the Paris climate agreement because even a coordinated engineered approach to climate change will also require meaningful progress toward reducing global carbon emissions. Hopefully, that step will be followed up by the U.S. taking an active leadership role in the very serious rising specter of global climate change.
Lorenz, Edward U. 1972, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.