Re-Engineering the Earth’s Climate: No Longer Science Fiction

geoengineering climate change sulfatesA portrait of global aerosols is seen in this undated NASA handout released November 14, 2012. In the image, dust (red) is lifted from the surface, sea salt (blue) swirls inside cyclones, smoke (green) rises from fires, and sulfate particles (white) stream from volcanoes and fossil fuel emissions (William Putman/NASA/Goddard courtesy Reuters)

By continuing to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, humanity is conducting the largest uncontrolled scientific experiment in the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. The most recent assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a dire portrait. Under a “business as usual” scenario, average global temperatures are predicted to rise by between 4.5 degrees and 14 degrees Fahrenheit—and temperatures at the earth’s poles are predicted to rise by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit over several decades. Even under the most optimistic scenario, which presumes unprecedented mitigation efforts, average global temperatures will almost certainly rise above the 2 degrees Celsius. The catastrophic implications will include melting polar icecaps, dramatic sea rise, mass extinction events, more extreme weather events, and the death of the world’s coral reefs from ocean acidification. Unfortunately for humanity, in the words of UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, “There is No Planet B.”

There may, however, be a Plan B. (And no, it does not involved colonizing Mars.) It involves geoengineering, or the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract human-induced climate change. Once relegated to the realm of science fiction, geoengineering has recently gained greater plausibility and credibility as a last-ditch option to combat warming—thanks to technological advances and  growing frustration with thefailure of the world’s leaders to strike the diplomatic bargains and take the political risks required to address the greatest collective-action challenge the world has ever faced.

Geoengineering can be divided into two basic approaches. The first, carbon dioxide removal (CDR), involves drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere through a variety of processes, ranging from fertilizing oceans (to promote plankton growth, which in turn convert CO2 to oxygen) to creating machines to capture greenhouse gases and store them underground. The second, is solar radiation management (SRM), which entails making the earth more reflective of the sun’s rays. By dispersing aerosols into the stratosphere, for instance, one could produce a cooling effect similar to the (temporary) effect provided by gases released in the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. Given current technologies, most scientists consider SRM to be more promising and less expensive than CDR.

Until recently, geoengineering was a third rail for both governments and environmentalists. Governments worried about its unintended consequences; environmentalists worried that it would encourage surrender in global mitigation efforts. In 2010, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Japan, endorsed a near total restriction on geoengineering activities.

More recently, the tide has begun to turn. Scientists have led the way in calling for systematic research on potential geoengineering options. Their reasoning is compelling. To begin with, new technologies have made it possible to envision large-scale human interventions into the earth’s climate system at a relatively cheap price. Simultaneously, as grave consequences of global warming become more apparent, there is a growing risk that states and nonstate actors alike will be tempted to take matters into their own hands.

Such freelancing is hardly far-fetched. Might not the Bangladeshi government, facing the prospect of “going under” given dramatically rising sea levels, decide to charter a few jumbo jets to disperse aerosols in the upper atmosphere? As for nonstate initiatives, they’ve already begun. Perhaps the most prominent example occurred in July 2012, when an American scientist, acting on behalf of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate off the coast of British Columbia, allegedly creating a massive phytoplankton bloom.

Such uncoordinated national actions and freelancing by superempowered groups or individuals could have disastrous consequences, particularly if they have not been properly tested or if there is inadequate scientific understanding of their potential impact, both locally and globally.

More concerning, there are no international or domestic rules of the road to govern geoengineering—or even geoengineering research. To be sure, a handful of international conventions touch on aspects of the problem, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), and the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. But neither national authorities nor the multilateral system has agreed on even basic issues, including: the definition of what qualifies as geoengineering; what risks it might pose; standards of transparency for experimentation, or legal constraints on research.

As in other areas, technological innovation is outpacing efforts by policymakers and regulators to set parameters about what is permissible and what is prohibited. The world is flying blind, with little understanding of the feasibility, risks, and effectiveness of potential technologies.

As the world’s leading reservoir of scientific expertise, the United States has an obligation to help fill this governance gap. To date, discussion of the pros and cons of geoengineering has largely been confined to discussion between scientists and civil society groups. That needs to change. At home, the U.S. government should work with leading national laboratories and universities to establish, at minimum, a code of principles to govern geoengineering research and experiments. The U.S. Congress should also hold hearings on regulations to govern the actual deployment of geoengineering technologies, with a focus on the potential benefits and risks of various technologies.

In parallel with these national efforts, the U.S. government should foster multilateral dialogue among countries that are major repositories of scientific and technological expertise on geoengineering. One option would be to encourage national academies of science in these nations to convene, discuss, and ultimately hammer out a common code of conduct. Such a “mini-lateral” approach is likely to be more productive than attempting—particularly at this early state—to negotiate a grand multilateral convention through the 193-member United Nations. Better to start with a smaller cohort of able, willing, and interested parties that can establish common norms and standards to govern research, which can later be expanded to encompass other countries.

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