Saving the planet – Thoughts on Geo-engineering

We are beyond the point of discussing whether or not climate change is real. In fact, we’ve been discussing man-made climate change as a serious threat now for the past 50 years. In addition, we know what it takes to stop damaging the planet – simply cut down on CO2 emissions, which in effect means burning less fossil fuels and eating less meat, specifically from cows. However, in spite of the knowledge and the resources to limit our consumption and do what’s right, we don’t. We use the atmosphere as a waste dump, and it is causing a lot of issues, such as reduced crop quality for farmers in developing countries, rising sea-levels and the like.

This sad guy sums up our problems pretty well.

A fat kid in a candy store… on an unlimited budget
Humans and the environment is very much a tale of human fallibility and the embodiment of human nature and I’m going to illustrate how and why with a metaphor.

Imagine a kid in a candy store, who’s been given an unlimited credit card by her parents, and has been told that she can spend and eat as much as possible, as long as she enjoys herself. The credit card lasts forever, and the only criteria her parents have given him is that he enjoys himself as much as possible. That kid might look a little something like this.

At least at first, because the thing is, that I’d imagine that this kid would run amok on a pretty regular basis wouldn’t you?

The problem is, that this kind of behavior left unchecked has some pretty serious side effects. Chances are that the kid grows fat pretty quickly, and turns in to an overweight teenager. Now because she has developed terrible habits, she is unable to control himself, and her consumption spins out of control, which leaves her as one of those obese adults, who needs a forklift to get out of bed in the morning and who is most definitely going to die unless he does something about his weight problem.

Now the obese person has two choices, where one is better but way harder – meaning eating a controlled diet and exercising regularly – and the other way is to have a gastric reduction surgery with physically limits the calories the person is capable of consuming, so that he is going to lose weight by force. This might not be as healthy, but it is less prone to failure than relying on sheer willpower.

This metaphor is an almost exact representation of how the human species has treated consumption of resources which are bad for the environment in the last 200 years. These resources are mainly fossil fuels and beef, which change the chemical makeup of our planet and the layers surrounding it like the ozone layer and the stratosphere.

To begin with we probably didn’t know that this immense consumption was bad for us, but as we grew fatter and fatter, we just couldn’t stop. So now we’re at the point where we have gotten so used to this immense amount of consumption, that we either have to – quite literally eat our vegetables.

This means that we either have to change our consumption patterns, which is hard, takes a long time and requires self-discipline, which goes against the very grain of human nature or get the environmental equivalent of a gastric stapling, which is easier, forces us to change, and is immediate. This is much more in tune with human nature, and thus it is much more attainable.

Luckily for us humans, and the planet we currently inhabit there is such a thing as a gastric stapling equivalent for the environment which is known as geo-engineering. Its foremost proponent is a pretty smart dude called David Keith, who is an applied physicist at Harvard, and has been working on the climate problem for some 20 years.

The thing about geo-engineering is that it is a politically hot potato because it has many implications, which are far-reaching and is infested with all types of issues and potential consequences. Moreover, it could be the most groundbreaking invention since the internet, which would allow humans to essentially control the climate and the weather. Add on top of this that it is political taboo, and the conversation about geo-engineering is just getting started, and I’m sure you’d agree that this topic needs to be put out in the open, for honest and public debate.

So what is geo-engineering?

Geo-engineering is a term which refers to two things. First and foremost, it refers to altering the amount of sunlight that the earth absorbs by controlling solar radiation, which would in effect cool down the planet, which in turn would offset the effects carbon in the atmosphere. The other methodology it refers to is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,

The most feasible and fastest method to reduce the effects of climate change – i.e. melting poles and sad polar bears – is controlling solar radiation, called Solar Radiation Management or SRM for short. The science behind this is fairly straightforward. The planet is in an equilibrium, where sunlight is absorbed, and infrared rays are radiated away from the planet. The reason why CO2 is such a big problem, is because it traps a larger percentage of the infrared rays, which heats up the planet more than desired. The essence of geo-engineering is preventing this from happening, which can be done using several methods

There are several methods of geo-engineering as the following image aptly illustrates

One method is to spray water in the sky, so that clouds become whiter and fluffier in order to reflect more sunlight. Another is reflective space mirrors, which is also designed to reflect more sunlight. However, the method which is currently the most feasible is the method of adding tiny aerosol particles to the upper atmosphere via airplane for instance.

As David Keith puts it “The doing it, is not the hard part”.

This might sound outlandish at first, and most of all like the workings of a mad scientist, but the truth of the matter is that doing this is essentially mimicking what volcanoes do. Large volcanoes put sulphur in to the upper atmosphere and thus cool the planet. Moreover, what Keith argues is that it would be more beneficial to do it on a smaller scale, than to do it on a massive scale.

However, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding SRM, such as does it create other environmental or social problems? Another thing is the fact that we will never be able to perfectly reverse engineer man-made climate change by simply reflecting sunlight in the upper atmosphere. Add to that the fact that there is uncertainty as to which regions will be affected how. It is clear that every region or area will not be affected to the same degree by doing this. Different parts of the biosphere might be affected in different ways as well.

David Keith says that we’re essentially inventing a knob for a thermostat for the global climate, and he argues that it is much easier to invent the knob, than it is to decide who is going to be in charge of it once it is invented. This is a key point when it comes to SRM, because at the end of the day, the geopolitical and the environmental risks are bigger problems than the potential cost of doing it, because it is a fairly inexpensive solution.

In order to illustrate the scale and cost of the problem, we’re looking at cooling down the planet to temperatures not seen since we invented the steam engine – i.e. since before we were able to do anything to meaningfully affect the climate. Moreover, we would be able to do this at a cost of USD 100 billion – approximately the same as the U.S. currently spends on food assistance. Given that this would likely be a combined worldwide effort, it is more fitting to look at what it would cost as a percentage of world GDP – it would be 0,12%, so all things considered it is an extremely cheap solution, especially when you consider the fact that in order to achieve the same effect by cutting carbon emissions would cost around USD 1 trillion. Add to that the fact that it would take a lot longer, and it is not hard to see why this might be a more attractive solution than suggested at first glance.

Geopolitical issues are a bitch

One possible – and fairly realistic scenario according to David Keith – is that one country decides to employ SRM, because it is beneficial to them, which then leads to droughts in a neighboring country, This could cause geopolitical issues, which might end up in open conflict i.e. a full-blown war over how to control the climate.

These things taken together means that we need to gravely consider the consequences that applying this solution as opposed to not applying it entails. Furthermore it is clear that no matter who makes the decision and what the outcome of the decision is we need extensive and comprehensive testing of the solution. It is also clear, that it needs to be done on an exceedingly small scale to begin with, and that results need to be monitored carefully over one or two decades.

Conclusion

Clearly, Solar Radiation Management is only viable as a last resort. Just like the gastric stapling surgery. This is not a solution that suddenly makes everything the way it was, and reverse-engineers the accumulated effect of 200 years of fucking with the environment. It is however, a solution that circumvents the worst effects – such as obliterating ourselves – and hopefully makes us realize that we need to change.

When asked about the moral hazard problem – i.e. if the advent and use of a technology like this takes away the incentive to limit CO2 emissions, and reduce the effort behind limiting pollution and climate change – David Keith responds with the parable of seatbelts: He says that the invention of the seat-belt reduces the incentive to drive safely – thus invoking moral hazard – but it also saves a lot of lives. So is having seat-belts therefore a bad idea? No.

We need to consider the pros and cons of geo-engineering very carefully before we do anything rash, which could have potentially devastating consequences to the environment. However, the fact of the matter is that we need to drag this issue kicking and screaming out into the light in order to have open and honest debate.

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