Playing God With the Global Climate

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The last international conference on climate change, held in November 2011 in Durban, was a dismal failure, with participating countries retreating from even the most modest commitments they had made at Copenhagen two years earlier. Is this time to despair or is there a plan B?

According to science, politicians only have a few years left to act before climate change becomes a permanent feature. Even if countries honored their promises, by 2020, rises in carbon dioxide emissions will cause warming of around 2°C with potentially disastrous consequences.

Why is no one listening to the scientists? Clearly, politicians have decided that climate change is an intractable problem. Action is costly, which means there are novotes for politicians in tackling the problem. In fact, action on climate should raise fuel and electricity costs, hardly a popular move. Plus, skeptics have had a field day creating confusion, distorting the science and unscrupulously using the emails from Climategate to discredit scientists. Finally, a new global financial crisis is distracting politicians from taking any action on climate change, let alone significantly cutting carbon emissions quickly.

In these desperate times some scientists are looking to geo-engineering as our best hope. One ideabeing tossed around is to whiten clouds by injecting them with a fine spray of seawater, thereby increasing sunlight reflection. Another involves pumping sulfates into the atmosphere, which will act in the same way as a volcano eruption, lowering temperatures around the Earth. And then, sounding more like science fiction, some scientists suggest launching giant shades, which would orbit around the Earth reflecting sunlight back into space.

The problem with all these solutions is that they haven’t been tested to see whether they could work. But even if they worked on a small scale, there is no telling what impact they could have on the Earth’s complex climate. What we do know is that these new technologies are likely to havedramatic and wide-ranging consequenceson weather patterns – good and bad. It is a testament to the desperate times are that geo-engineering is being seriously considered.

To test the waters, a survey of 3,105 participants, was conducted in the UK, US and Canada so see whether there was support for geoengineering. The results were published October 24th in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Surprisingly, many people had heard about geo-engineering and 72% “somewhat” or “strongly” supported research to assess its feasibility.

The simplistic proposition that plan B is based on is: Technology got us into this mess, perhaps smarter technology will get us out. The problem is that as greenhouse warming causes disastrous climate episodes over the next few years, forcing politicians to accept that climate change is both real and potentially cataclysmic, they may well leap on geo-engineering as a quick fix. Certainly, it is politically more palatable than tackling the public’s addiction to fossil fuels and much cheaper. But could it really be a solution or make it worse?

The risks, I believe, are much too great, and it is even possible to conceive a scenario where geo-engineering could trigger a climate war. Consider what might happen should, say, the US, acting on its own, startspumping sulfates into the atmosphere. Soon after, major floods or droughts could occur elsewhere in the world, say, China. What would you think China’s response might be?

Not only are the risks too great, for the obvious reason, but the very existence of this particular Plan B is dangerous for less obvious reasons. Geo-engineering provides an excuse for politicians to avoid harder options. They may be tempted to argue that if climate change really gets bad then simple, inexpensive technological solutions are at hand. This is a false hope and a dangerous one.

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