Being an environmental science student, I am constantly being bombarded with scientific proof that climate change is real, and that something must be done in order for us to maintain sustainable life on Earth. On the other hand, I also get to learn about innovative cross-disciplinary solutions that could mitigate the effects of climate change. To me, one of the most fascinating, and quite possibly most controversial, methods of tackling climate change is geoengineering. But what is it and is it really safe?
Geoengineering, also referred to as climate engineering, describes technologies and techniques for intentionally altering the global climate, in an effort to moderate or anticipate some of the effects of climate change. This principle has two categories; solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal.
Solar radiation management offsets the effects of greenhouse gases by causing Earth to absorb less solar radiation and deflecting sunlight away from the Earth. Solar radiation management typically consists of putting giant satellites in space to deflect sunlight away from Earth, putting tiny particles in the stratosphere, whitening clouds over the ocean, or painting white roofs. Whereas, carbon dioxide removal works by removing one of the major greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere through a series of process, including capturing carbon dioxide from air, compressing it and storing it in geologic reservoirs.
Solar radiation management has many advantages, which is why it is one of the most trusted forms of mitigation. Many say carbon dioxide removal is the better of the two, as it is the closest we are to a time machine by reversing the rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.
The research behind geoengineering dates back to 1965.
This was the year U.S. President Lyndon Johnson raised the issue to his staffers. However, in the last few years it has been seen as a more viable possibility for what can be done. President Johnson told Congress, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” His solution, proposed by his scientific advisors, was to spread reflective particles over 13 million square kilometres of ocean in order to reflect an extra 1% of sunlight away from Earth.
Many speculate as to how this form of climate engineering can and will deliver, even though the idea of large-scale planetary manipulation has been around as long the physics principles behind it.
Currently, the field of geoengineering consists of desk and laboratory studies and small-scale field research. However, none of the technologies have been implemented on a scale that impacts the global climate. Some of the major risks associated with any form of climate intervention are, environmental science consequences (intended or unintended) and political, social or military risks. Some of the involuntary consequences of climate manipulation include, the overall unpredictable side effects, such as altering up global rainfall patterns. This change can been seen with solar radiation management. When carbon dioxide removal is put in play, vast oceanic dead zones and invasive species can become a huge problem.
Geoengineering has been a big topic of dispute among the scientific community. Studies have come back inconclusive on several fronts regarding the effectiveness of reflecting sunlight through particles placed in the stratosphere. Another area of concern with carbon dioxide removal is its presence in oceans through carbonic acid, which attacks skeletons and shells of marine organisms. This strategy, known as ocean iron fertilization, involves adding iron to the ocean in order to increase algal blooms. As the blooms die and sink to the bottom of the ocean floor, they effectively sequester carbon dioxide. Many remain skeptical as recent tests have not proven this method effective in reducing carbon dioxide’s presence in the oceans.
Based on facts and data, geoengineering is not a form of climate science that should be introduced for several years.
That hasn’t stopped several companies and financial backers around the world, who are currently investing geoengineering, including Bill Gates’ company, Global Thermostat, and Kilimanjaro Energy. There is a lot of testing still to be done with geoengineering, and, as this is a controversial topic, there may be some time before there is a consensus.
Unfortunately for us the effects of climate change are already here. Should we wait before trying something drastic? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think we should resort to manipulating the climate.