So it begins...

"It" is the great geoengineering debate. And the stakes have never been higher.

The basics are ably described by Chris Mooney and his blog partner Sheril Kirshenbaum has already supplied a less-than-appreciative response. Even though there are still a good number of misinformed folks out there who can't accept the reality of climate change, some sectors of the scientific community have already given up on the hope of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and moved on to thinking about ways to counteract the resulting warming.

What we're talking about is fiddling with the atmospheric and oceanic heat balance through massive, some might say "wild" schemes that would dwarf anything engineers have tackled yet. Think the Three Gorges Dam is a big deal? That's nothing compared to the scale of things required to offset global warming. As Mooney writes:

Put more bluntly, geoengineering is the study of how to mess with the planet even more than we already have, with the hope of moving the global climate back in the other direction.

Among the ideas floating around -- and considered at a recent conference in Cambridge, Mass. -- are injecting into the atmosphere enormous quantities of heat-reflecting aerosols, sending millions of tiny mirrors (or building a few very big ones) into orbit to divert some of the sunlight, installing floating pipes in the ocean to drawn down CO2-rich waters to the depth, and seeding those same oceans with plankton to absorb carbon in hopes they fall to the seabed when they die.

No one really knows exactly how any of these ideas will actually work or what unintended consequences come with them. All very theoretical, at this point. The thing they all have in common is degree of confidence in science and technological R&D to solve the problem of climate change. Sheril describes proponents of such plans as "folks who believe 'science will solve all our problems, so why worry?' which sounds to me like suggesting we need not take responsibility for our actions in the here and now." And she's bang on.

The obvious problem with any approach that relies on tinkering with the planetary ecosystem is we know so little about the thing in the first place. We just have no bloody clue what will happen to our air if we fire millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. Did someone mention acid rain? And what about the oceans? Counteracting the effects of greenhouse gases in the air will be do nothing to stop the falling pH of the oceans, with the likely massive loss of biodiversity that will bring.

Mooney acknowledges the problems and concludes that we need to do more research. It's the same argument that governments use to invest in biological warfare:

What if a rogue government, or a crazy billionaire, decides to unilaterally execute one of these geoengineering proposals regardless of what the rest of the world thinks? In that case we will need to know as much as possible about the consequences, if only to know how best to convince would-be geoengineers to hold back, or barring that, to prepare for what they unleash.

Fair enough. Turns out Mooney's case is actually not that controversial. But then he ends with "and it should receive government funding." Which is where it gets tricky.

We've got a federal government that keeps failing to fund fundamental research into climate change, like the DISCOVR satellite, which is sitting in a box in DC, just waiting to be launched. Won't asking for funds to research geoengineering only make it harder to fund everything else?

This is important, because the nature of geoengineering makes it extremely attractive to corporations. First, successful deployment of any of these schemes means industries don't have to stop burning coal and oil, and they can carry on despoiling the planet as they always have. Second, geoengineering offers the prospect of massive government expenditures on projects that will be built and operated by the very same folks responsible for creating the problem in the first place. It's a win-win scenario if there ever was one. If you're a corporate CEO, that is.

Of course, if we knew with a relatively high degree of confidence that there was no hope we will be able to reduce our GHG emissions sufficiently and rapidly enough to forestall catastrophic climate change, then it would be easier to make the case for geoengineering. But as the IPCC and many others have pointed out, we already have at our disposal a wide variety of technological options. And before we start pouring money into space mirrors, why not commit a few hundred billion dollars into renewable energy sources? This is the strategy advocated by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (they of the Death of Environmentalism) and what's not to like about it?

For my tax dollar, that would be a wiser investment. In a perfect world, scientists would have access to enough money to study whatever they wanted. But it's not, and they don't. So, sorry Chris, but no, the government shouldn't fund geoengineering research at this particular time. First it should give renewable energy research the support it deserves.

If corporations are interested in conducting the research themselves, I say "Fill your boots." After all, they are guaranteed to benefit from deployment, regardless of the efficacy and side-effects. The rest of us have to take our chances.

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The only scheme that I think might work with minimal side effects would be orbital mirrors. But we are still a decade or three away from the technology to produce them.

More study is needed....

Sounds like the global warming denier's argument. What if we quit emitting ALL CO2 today, and that is STILL not enough to save our pbiosphere and/or our species? Shall we go calmly into the cold, dark night? Or maybe we should become adults (as a species) and start tending to the garden earth.

We are already geoengineering. Agriculture, CO2, CFCs, etc. Maybe we should do the research so we understand how to do it wisely.

Fear of technology will not get us out of the problems of technology.

I believe that geoengineering is something that we have to consider. This whole problem is at the stage where we have to consider both how to stop the cause and also fix the results.
I think in this brainstorming phase no options should be left out even if they look impossible right now. So many times solutions are a cumulative effect of many ideas metamorphosing over time!
Dave Briggs :~)