Is Geoengineering the Answer to Climate Change?

Hitting reverse.

Climate changing a little too fast? No problem: just change it back. That’s the basic idea behind geoengineering, a broad label for a host of strategies and theories aimed at curing climate problems rather than preventing them. Instead of, say, reducing our carbon footprint (and putting up with the hardships that go along with such an effort), we simply “geoengineer” the Earth’s climate back to where it should be.

One example: refreezing the North Pole. All we have to do is install a bunch of pumps with wind turbines (up to 10 million of them) to spray sea water over the surface of Arctic ice. Such a strategy would thicken the ice by up to a metre. Or we could “fertilize” the ocean with tiny iron particles to encourage huge algae blooms—the microscopic creatures would take in carbon dioxide as they grow, then sequester it as they die and fall to the ocean floor. Or maybe we could create a fleet of drone ships that would “seed” clouds across open expanses of ocean using sea water. More cloud cover would reflect more of the sun’s heat before it reaches the Earth’s surface, thereby moderating global warming and hopefully the extreme weather events that come with it.

What could go wrong? Maybe nothing. Or everything.

Far-fetched? Scientists at the University of Cambridge don’t seem to think so. In May, they established the Centre for Climate Repair, which will take a closer look at outlandish ideas that could have a big impact on carbon emissions in a short period of time. Proponents suggest such an approach is vital because of the time-consuming nature of forging consensus.

What could go wrong? Maybe nothing. Or everything. Such wide-ranging environmental manipulation works just fine in computer models, but no one is quite sure what consequences there would be in real life—especially on such a massive scale. Proponents have dismissed such concerns as fear-mongering. But others believe these ideas are dangerous enough to call for an outright ban on geoengineering.

The greatest threat may be psychological: the idea that when it comes to climate change, there’s such a thing as a quick fix. If we identify “easy” ways to reverse the effects of climate change, what incentive do we have to change our behaviour, and pay the required price when we can just “silver bullet” our way out of a problem? Sure, drastic times call for drastic measures. But when such measures seem reasonable, that is perhaps the most drastic change of all.


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