Why geo-engineering is silly

Geo-engineering is the term given to proposed attempts by human beings to change our global climate. Of course, we’re already causing the breakdown of a stable, human-friendly global climate through our carbon emissions, so proponents suggest geo-engineering as a way of reversing global warming. The problem is that the global climate system is immensely complicated, and while scientists have learned to predict certain large-scale trends with a high level of certainty, it’s impossible to foresee all the consequences of attempts at geo-engineering.

One solution favoured by geo-engineering enthusiasts is attempting to mimic the cooling effects of sulphur produced by volcanic eruptions, by injecting sunlight-reflecting sulphur dioxide gas into the higher levels of the atmosphere.

One massive problem with every almost every proposed geo-engineering plan is that they don’t deal with one of the other gigantic side-effects of our increased carbon dioxide emissions – ocean acidification caused by the oceans soaking up increased amounts of carbon dioxide.

This obvious problem hasn’t stopped self-appointed planetary saviours like Bill Gates, and rather sadly, Richard Branson, from investing in these schemes, in complete defiance of any notion of global democracy, as the Guardian recently described: “The powerful coalition that wants to engineer the world’s climate: Businessmen, scientists and right-wing thinktanks are joining forces to promote ‘geo-engineering’ ideas to cool the planet’s climate.

But ignoring ocean acidification and global democracy are not the only problems with geo-engineering schemes. The basic logic of geo-engineering is badly flawed, in a way best described by climatologist Gavin Schmidt of NASA and Realclimate.org, quoted in an article in Rolling Stone magazine a few years ago:

That, of course, is the fundamental problem with geoengineering — it doesn’t even attempt to address the root source of global warming. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, offers a simple analogy to illustrate the point. “Think of the climate as a small boat on a rather choppy ocean,” Schmidt wrote recently. “Under normal circumstances the boat will rock to and fro, and there is a finite risk that the boat could be overturned by a rogue wave. But now one of the passengers has decided to stand up and is deliberately rocking the boat ever more violently. Someone suggests that this is likely to increase the chances of the boat capsizing. Another passenger then proposes that with his knowledge of chaotic dynamics he can counterbalance the first passenger and, indeed, counter the natural rocking caused by the waves. But to do so he needs a huge array of sensors and enormous computational resources to be ready to react efficiently but still wouldn’t be able to guarantee absolute stability, and indeed, since the system is untested, it might make things worse.

“So,” Schmidt concluded, “is the answer to a known and increasing human influence on climate an ever more elaborate system to control the climate? Or should the person rocking the boat just sit down?”

Fortunately, the UN has taken a strong stand against geo-engineering, recently banning many geo-engineering proposals under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. But it seems the wording of the agreement is weak, and the US, as usual, opts out of the agreement by virtue of never having signed the convention in the first place.

It seems to me that most of the proponents of geo-engineering are people who are most familiar with the logic of closed, linear systems. But those who understand that the Earth is an open, complex, chaotic system have little patience with the notion.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
This entry was posted in Our war on the atmosphere and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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