Geoengineering Is On the Table!

It gratifies me to read that the President’s science advisor, John Holdren, is a proponent of geoengineering as a possible option to counter atmospheric global warming. I have long held the position that going green is not going to be sufficient, and for two reasons: Granting that I am a pessimist, I still don’t think that humanity as a whole can do it fast enough, and secondly, global warming would still continue because of the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. It’s going to be there for centuries, because it takes that long for the earth to filter it out in the absence of geoengineering techniques.

We as a species created this mess, and it’s our responsibility to clean it up. The earth can clean itself up, eventually, but in the meantime, countless other inhabitants of the planet could die off. The most recent TIME Magazine, in fact, has a cover story about the “mass extinction” that some scientists say has already begun here. The most recent National Geographic has an article about vanishing amphibian populations. The earth could indeed clean up the mess that Homo sapiens made of its atmosphere, but at what cost? No, this is our moral imperative.

Dr. Holdren says that geoengineering is a “last resort,” which is probably appropriate. It’s still important for the world to turn green for other reasons. First, there is the health issue: Burning fossil fuels fouls the air with particle pollution as well as greenhouse gases, and those of us who are prone to allergies and other respiratory problems can feel the effect. Secondly, going green saves green; green technologies ultimately end up saving money in the long run, whether in the form of lower utility bills or less money spent on gasoline. Third, fossil fuels aren’t going to last forever. We’ll probably run out of oil before coal and natural gas, but there is a time limit on all of them. I think that humanity should attempt to make the switch from dirty to clean energy, and cut down on energy usage at that. Efficiency is the byword.

However, it’s my contention that going green is best in the small scale—benefiting consumers of energy—whereas geoengineering is the best option to address the overarching problem of anthropogenic global warming. We can’t just put less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we currently do. What is currently there is already altering our weather patterns and creating more weather disasters and extreme events. Just ask anyone in the Australian outback about that. Ask someone in New Orleans. Ask residents of drought-stricken lower Appalachia. We have to remove what has already been added to the atmospheric soup.

It should go without saying that of the options outlined in the CBS article at the beginning of this piece, my personal choice would be to

[create] artificial “trees” – giant towers that suck carbon dioxide out of the air and store it.

I really can’t get on board with adding more pollutants, unless those pollutants are able to bind with CO2 molecules, form a harmless compound, and sift out of the atmosphere that way. (I am not currently aware of any such geoengineering proposal, however.) The reason is that adding particle-matter pollutants into the atmosphere is still a temporary solution. PM pollution is being ejected skyward already by the same industrial processes that generate carbon dioxide; in fact, it’s been hypothesized that the PM pollution could be mitigating the effect of that carbon dioxide. Because these particles are so heavy, this pollution falls to earth quickly, often in the form of contaminated/acidic rain, and its sunlight-blocking effect is then over. (This, incidentally, is why going green alone won’t do the trick: Reducing CO2 output also reduces mitigating PM output.) For a PM-based geoengineering solution to work, we’d have to dump this stuff into the atmosphere quite frequently, adding more and more of it to counter the increased amount of carbon dioxide that ends up there each year. It’s just not feasible long-term. We’ve got to find a way to attempt removal.

Technology is a scary thing, especially on scales like this. Altering the atmosphere of the planet is about as big as it gets with our current technological level. It seems to be a level of hubris worthy of a Greek myth. But the fact is, we’ve already done it. Industrial technology has already altered the atmosphere and continues to do so each day. These alterations currently being made are for the worse. Geoengineering is a way to use technology to alter the atmosphere for the better—indeed, to take it back to something like it used to be. It gives me great hope to know that the administration has scientists who understand this, who embrace the potential good of technology, and who will put geoengineering firmly on the climate change mitigation table.