GEOENGINEERING THE FUTURE
From chapter 12 (The Day After Tomorrow), Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Science Fiction Movies
In 2006, University of Arizona astronomer Roger Angel suggested a rather radical solution to global warming. His idea was to launch a trillion-dollar light diffuser into space, to deflect some of the sun’s rays from the Earth. The proposal was published in the prestigious journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and at the time it caught the imagination of a number of us who were intrigued by such an audacious approach to planetary engineering.
Angel proposed to send billions of small, transparent “flyers” into space to create a cloud at the Lagrange point between the Sun and the Earth—the point where the gravitational pull of each body just balances out—allowing the flyers to seemingly hover effortlessly between the two. These would deflect just enough sunlight from hitting the Earth that the cloud would act as a massive solar shade, countering the effects of greenhouse-gas-driven global warming.
Angel’s idea was part of a growing interest in using planetary- scale engineering to manage the effects of human-caused climate change. Commonly called “geoengineering,” it’s an approach to controlling the earth’s climate that, to some at least, has become increasingly relevant as efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions have run into rough water. Yet, despite the urgency with which we need to get a grip on our collective environmental impacts, geoengineering represents technologies and ideologies that are fraught with challenges.
I first started writing about geoengineering back in in 2009. At the time, I was fascinated by the audacity of the ideas being discussed (most of which were more mundane than throwing billions of sunshades into space). But I was also intrigued by the ethical and social issues they raised. I’d been following the technology before this, but what sparked my interest in 2009 was the controversy around a particular experiment planned to take place in the Southern Ocean.
The experiment was given the admittedly not-so-catchy name LOHAFEX (from “LOHA,” the Hindi word for iron, and “FEX,” an acronym derived from Fertilization Experiment), and was designed to see if algal blooms could be used to remove carbon dioxide from the air. The plan was to release six tons of dissolved iron over three hundred square miles of ocean in an attempt to feed and stimulate an algal bloom, which would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before sinking to the bottom of the ocean. But even before the research started, it drew criticism from environmental groups. As one of the largest geoengineering trials to date at the time, they were concerned that it represented unnecessary and even unethical direct experimentation on the only environment we have.
Despite the low chances of LOHAFEX having any lasting impacts, these concerns put the study on hold until the funders were certain that the risks were minimal. As it turned out, the experiment, when it eventually took place, showed that ocean fertilization with iron had a small and unpredictable impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide. This was a useful finding, as it indicated the limitations
of this one potential approach to carbon dioxide removal. But it also demonstrated what a contentious issue geoengineering was at the time.
Even today, the ethics and responsibility of geoengineering are hotly contested. On one hand, this isn’t surprising. We only have one environment to experiment with, and so we can’t afford too many “oops!” moments; there’s no convenient drawing-board to go back to when Global Experiment A goes wrong. But in addition to the (albeit low in most cases) risks, there’s another concern that dogs geoengineering, and that’s the underlying ideology.
If you believe that the root problem with the world today is human behavior, then one of your primary solutions to global warming is likely to be trying to change how people behave. This may involve reducing dependency on fossil fuels, or encouraging people to lead more energy-efficient (or less energy-greedy) lifestyles. Or it may mean helping individuals and organizations develop environmentally healthy practices. In contrast, anything that gives what you think are humanity’s bad habits a free pass is, by default, not good news—the reckless extraction and use of fossil fuels for instance, or profligate energy use. Geoengineering does not fit comfortably within this ideology. It smacks too much of developing technological fixes to reverse the consequences of “bad behavior,” rather than fixing the behavior that led to the problem in the first place.
Unfortunately, to many people—and I would count myself here— we don’t have the luxury of sacrificing people’s lives and the environment we live in on the altar of ideology. Without question, we are caught up in a cycle of collective and individual behavior where we readily and wrongly pollute the “commons” of the atmosphere for short-term gain. It would be lovely, of course, to think that people could learn to be more responsible than this. But individuals are complex, and society as a whole is more complex still. We all have our own values, and things that are important to us that we are striving for. And in some cases, for good or bad, these don’t align with the common good of maintaining the earth’s environment in its current (or past) state. Factors like putting food on the table and a roof over our family’s head come into play, or getting out of poverty, reducing inequities, closing economic disparities, and striving for the same living conditions as others. Individuals and nations are constantly juggling a plethora of issues that are important, and while the environment is one of them, it isn’t always the most important.
Yet despite this complex mess of conflicting priorities, aims, and desires, the cold hard truth is that our actions are already forcing the global climate to change. And as they do, we have a choice to make: live with the consequences, or do something about it. To some in the geoengineering community, the only way to “do something about it” is to stop waiting for people to do the right thing, and to start to engineer the heck out of the problem. And this, as it turns out, isn’t as hard as you might imagine.
Here, geoengineers have two basic options: reduce the amount of sunlight hitting and being absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere,
or actively reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide in particular). In technical terms,
these are often lumped into one of two categories: solar radiation management, or SRM, and carbon dioxide removal, or CDR, although it must be said that, to the enterprising geoengineer, there are ways of engineering the earth’s environment that don’t necessarily fit conveniently into either of these buckets.
Roger Angel’s solar shade spaceships aside, many of these techniques aren’t exactly rocket science. For instance, planting
lots of trees is a form of CDR, as they suck up and store carbon dioxide in their wood (although it’s not the most effective form of CDR). LOHAFEX was another form of CDR, as are technologies that actively remove carbon dioxide from power-plant emissions, or artificial trees and other technologies that convert carbon dioxide either into plastics and fuels that can be reused, or into materials that can be buried in the ground.
Many of the approaches being considered for SRM are equally straightforward: painting roofs white, for instance, to reflect sunlight, or spraying sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere. This last technique borrows a trick from volcanoes, which can actually cool the earth’s atmosphere when they spew millions of tons of sulfate particles into the stratosphere. And it’s not that expensive.
A country like India, for instance, could probably finance a global stratospheric aerosol SRM program designed to improve local crop yields. The problem is, of course, that such unilateral action would most likely make a lot of other countries rather angry.
All this is rather hypothetical, though, as to date there’s not been sufficient research to get a good sense of what might work and what might not with geoengineering technologies, and what the unintended consequences might be and how to avoid them. As
a result, the “geoengineering elite” of the world are caught in a 269 seemingly never-ending argument around should-they-shouldn’t-they. And what limited research on possible approaches has been proposed has run into barriers, much as the LOHAFEX project did. People who are professionally concerned about these things are reticent to sanction experiments designed to help develop effective geoengineering approaches, either because they are worried about the consequences, or because they see this as an ideological slippery slope.
And yet, something has to give here. To use an analogy from health, it’s like a physician being faced with a patient needing heart bypass surgery because they’ve overindulged and under-exercised, but refusing treatment because it may encourage others to similarly adopt unhealthy lifestyles. In the medical case, the solution is a “yes and” one: treat the patient and simultaneously work to change behavior. And it’s the same with the environment. Yes, we’ve made a mess of things, and yes, we need to change our behavior. But also, yes, we need to use every tool we have to make sure the resulting impacts are as benign as we can make them.
And this brings us back to resiliency, and the challenges of living on a dynamic planet. Unless drastic action is taken to forcibly reduce the human footprint on planet Earth, we need to be able to protect and nurture what is important to humanity. And that means developing the ability to protect lives and livelihoods; to protect dignity and freedom; to protect what people care about
the most. This will take social and political change, together with global cooperation. But it will also take using our technical and engineering prowess to the best of our ability. And, importantly, it will depend on combining research and experimentation with social awareness, to develop ways of engineering the climate that are socially responsible as well as socially and politically sanctioned.
This probably won’t end up including high-concept ideas like Roger Angel’s solar diffusers. And to be fair, Angel saw his thought experiment as an extreme solution to an emerging extreme problem. Emphasizing this, his paper concluded, “It would make no sense to plan on building and replenishing ever larger space sunshades to counter continuing and increasing use of fossil fuel. The same massive level of technology innovation and financial investment needed for the sunshade could, if also applied to renewable
energy, surely yield better and permanent solutions.” Rather, we need feasible and tested engineering approaches that can be used
carefully and responsibly, and with the agreement of everyone potentially impacted by them. And they need to be part of a range of options that are pursued to managing both our impacts on the world we live on, and the challenges of living on what is, at the end of the day, a capricious planet.
How we respond to this challenge—and to the ongoing challenge of climate change more broadly—depends to a large extent on how we think about the world we live in and the future we’re building. And this raises an issue that threads through this chapter: Irrespective of how deep our science is, or how powerful and complex our technologies are, we cannot hope to build a better, more resilient future through science and technology if we don’t understand our relationship with them in the first place. And this leads us to our final movie: Carl Sagan’s Contact.