Watch out for quick-fix climate techno solutions

Decades of abject failure to curb carbon emissions has left us in a perilous situation as global climate destabilisation begins to bite in earnest. Numerous techno-fixes are now being seriously explored, backed by some big names as well as attracting serious interest at governmental level. However, trying to engineer a system as complex and dynamic as an entire planet’s climate may be as dangerous as it is implausible, as I explored in the Irish Examiner in February.

IN APRIL 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia underwent the largest eruption the world had seen in more than 1,000 years. This triggered a ‘volcanic winter’ that caused global average temperatures to quickly drop by around 1°C.

As a direct result, the summer of the following year saw crop failures and famines from China to Europe, North America and beyond. Ireland also was impacted, as a typhus epidemic resulting from widespread hunger killed thousands in what has become known as the “Year Without A Summer”.

Author Mary Shelley, confined to indoors in a villa in Switzerland as a result of incessant summer rainfall and darkness, was inspired by the dank conditions to write the famous horror novel Frankenstein, – which explores the dangers of humans dabbling in technology and tampering with forces we barely understand – in June 1816.

While its cooling effects were short-lived, the Mount Tambora eruption showed how sensitive the global atmosphere is to large-scale disruption, yet for the last two centuries, humanity has been engaged in an uncontrolled experiment involving altering the basic chemistry of the entire planet.

Following the clearing of vast areas of forests as well as burning of billions of tons of fossil fuels, the level of carbon dioxide, a key heat-trapping gas, in the global atmosphere has increased by 50% versus pre-industrial. while methane levels have trebled.

This rate of change is the fastest in millions of years, and is already having dramatic impacts on the global climate, as heatwaves intensify, flooding events become more extreme and droughts and desertification accelerate.

In the three decades since intergovernmental efforts to curb global warming got underway in earnest, total emissions have actually increased by more than in all of human history up to 1990. As the old joke goes, ‘we’ve tried nothing, and now we’re all out of ideas’.

While the climate situation deteriorates, ever more desperate measures, once thought too dangerous to ever be seriously considered, are now on the table politically. Chief among these is what’s known as solar geoengineering.

The US government recently announced it would study the effects of spraying chemicals such as sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to essentially mimic the effect of a major volcanic eruption and artificially engineer a global cooling event.

When released high in the stratosphere by a fleet of aircraft, aerosols such as sulphur dioxide disperse and block some of the incoming solar radiation. This effect also occurs as a result of emissions from coal plants that haven’t been fitted with scrubbers.

Ironically, pollution from these coal-burning plants, largely in China and India, currently masks nearly half a degree of global warming.

Right-wing groups who have long opposed action on climate change, such as the Heritage Foundation in the US, now support geoengineering, as they see it as a business-as-usual way of continuing to burn fossil fuels while using geoengineering to offset ever-rising temperatures.

This is as dangerous as it is convenient. First, one of the critical weaknesses of the very concept of geoengineering is that it dangles the prospect of an easy techno-fix in front of governments that are already struggling to cut emissions and are facing strong resistance from vested interests. Simply having the option of geoengineering “on the table” is likely to stall vital action to cut emissions.

Second, who exactly gets to decide the rules? What happens if for instance Russia, the US, or China decides to embark on a solo global geoengineering project they think may benefit their region?

Such an initiative in one part of the world could lead to disastrous unintended consequences elsewhere. For instance, an intervention by the US government to tackle the deepening drought in its western states might cause the annual monsoon rains to weaken or fail in Asia, leaving hundreds of millions facing disaster and setting in motion a massive geopolitical crisis.

“Solar geoengineering is an extremely risky and intrinsically unjust technological proposal that doesn’t address any of the causes of climate change”, according to Silvia Ribeiro, of the ETC group, an NGO that monitors the impact of emerging technologies.

Another issue that geoengineering has no answer for is: what happens when you stop? If say global temperatures have been artificially lowered by aerosols in the stratosphere or a marine cloud brightening project and this is no longer possible in the future because of war or economic collapse, the atmosphere would experience a “termination shock”, triggering a devastating sudden temperatures spike.

There are forms of “natural” geoengineering that don’t require scientists to play God with the global climate system. These include afforestation and peatland restoration, as well as rewilding.

These may be less of a quick fix but ultimately the problems caused by technology can never be solved by simply applying ever more technology.

In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed”.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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