The Questionable Future of Geoengineering

By Jasmine Owens:

This year, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, responsible for federally funded climate and environmental research, recommended additional studies into two areas of geoengineering research. Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale intervention in Earth’s natural systems in order to counteract climate change– specifically, offsetting global warming caused by elevated greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases work like an actual greenhouse, trapping the heat released from the earth’s surface in the atmosphere which prohibits the planet to cool down, causing a myriad of effects which endanger the biosphere: rising sea levels, melting ice caps, and droughts, among others. While the nascent field of geoengineering attracts an increasing amount of attention, there remains much trepidation with how it could potentially affect current efforts to limit carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.

 

There are two varieties of geoengineering that have gained a lot of attention: altering the reflectivity of Earth and removing carbon from the atmosphere. The former involves the injection of sulfur-based molecules into the atmosphere to form particles that would reflect sunlight back into space. It is hoped that this would cool the atmosphere, as it would decrease  the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth. Estimates place the cost at less than $1 billion a year, which is relatively inexpensive when considering global wealth of $115.28 trillion. The long term consequences of this method are unknown, while the short term consequences vary.

 

In essence, this process acts like a large volcanic eruption, which can sometimes release sulfur into the atmosphere, cooling the temperature of the planet. However, through geoengineering, instead of lasting a couple years, it could continue for hundreds, even thousands of years. While the benefit of this action could be a reduction in the amount of major, dangerous storms that are happening more frequently, over the long run it could potentially lead to more droughts. This would come about because of the effects that high amounts of carbon dioxide have on plants, causing them to close pores in their leaves, diminishing the amount of water vapor released, as well as influencing evaporation. Alternatively, the other popular form of reflectivity altering is the concept of spraying particles from ships or similar seaborne platforms to manufacture low-level clouds, which performs essentially the same reflective function as the sulfur-based particles.

 

A more skeptical idea is carbon capture and storage (CCS). This process uses chemicals called amines to capture concentrated carbon dioxide from power plants. Currently being tested on a small scale, it is believed that CCS — with some modifications — could be applied on a much larger scale to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, this method has not garnered as much attention as the first method of sulfur-based molecule injection.  

 

Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program program aims to advance solar geoengineering’s frontier. The program aims to minimize these highlighted risks of geoengineering thus far. Despite this topic not being heavily researched, those at Harvard deem it important to continue researching to figure out if geoengineering will ever be a viable option to combat climate change.

Recently, the National Academy of Science, sponsored by the U.S. National Research Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Energy sponsored a study that pushes for experiments testing geoengineering technologies. The study indicated that geoengineering only has the potential to offset partially the climate changes induced by greenhouse gases, and could even introduce new problems of its own. Concern has reverberated throughout the science community, as they fear that even talking about the issue at hand would divert attention from current efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

 

Scientists are apprehensive that geoengineering might be used as an excuse for inaction by the Trump administration. The argument might arise that if geoengineering techniques could be used retroactively to combat climate change, then there is no need for the U.S. to work toward reducing carbon emissions or adopting renewable energy now. However, the aforementioned report asserts that geoengineering alone is not enough to curb climate change effects. Climate scientists agree there still needs to be action taken now to reduce carbon emissions, otherwise, there will be serious ramifications in the future. Meanwhile, geoengineering should be treated as a side project to be studied and perfected just in case solutions now are not successful.   

 

While there still is work to be done regarding the future of geoengineering, many experts are in agreement that it is crucial to continue researching the subject, working out the effects it has on natural water cycles, and figuring out if this is a feasible option in the future. However, it will not do to dwell on the potentiality of geoengineering while ignoring the simple and crucial solutions we can enforce now, such as committing to lowering U.S. carbon emissions, investing in renewable energy, or even planting more trees. With these factors in mind, climate change and geoengineering resemble a giant question mark hanging over the future of the environmental state of the planet. What the answers will look like will be determined by the political and economic will of all nations — especially the United States, the largest carbon emitter in the world — to commit to reducing carbon emissions and allowing further research into the nearly untouched field of geoengineering.

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