Tuesday, August 27, 2013
A Planet Too Hot
geo-engineering our planetary salvation?
Submitted by Myrtle Macdonald
for the David Suzuki Foundation
environments to suit our needs is not new. From clearing land to
building dams, we've done it throughout history. When our technologies
and populations were limited, our actions affected small areas — though
with some cascading effects on interconnected ecosystems.
We've now entered an era in which humans are a geological force.
According to the website Welcome to the Anthropocene.
There are now so many of us, using so many resources, that we're
disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology by which
elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and
atmosphere. We're changing the way water moves around the globe as never
before. Almost all the planet's ecosystems bear the marks of our
One of our greatest impacts is global warming, fuelled by massive
increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning oil, coal and gas.
Thanks in part to self-preserving industrialists, complicit governments
and deluded deniers, we've failed to take meaningful action to address
the problem, even though we've known about it for decades. Many now
argue the best way to protect humanity from the worst effects is to
further alter Earth's natural systems through geoengineering.
Geoengineering to combat climate change is largely untested. Because
we've stalled so long on reducing carbon emissions and still aren't
doing enough, we may have to consider it. What will that mean?
As it relates to climate change, geoengineering falls into two
categories: solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. The
former involves reflecting solar radiation back into space. The latter
is aimed at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it.
Solar radiation management includes schemes such as releasing sulphur
aerosols into the atmosphere to scatter sunlight and reduce radiation,
creating or whitening clouds by spraying seawater or other materials
into the air, and even installing giant reflectors in space. These
methods don't affect CO2 levels and so don't address issues like ocean
acidification, but they offer possible quick fixes to reduce warming.
An example of carbon removal is fertilizing oceans with iron. Iron
stimulates growth of small algae called phytoplankton, which remove
carbon dioxide from the sea and release oxygen through photosynthesis.
This allows the oceans to absorb additional CO2 from the atmosphere.
When the plankton die and sink to the ocean floor, they become buried
under other materials, storing the carbon within them.
The Alberta and federal governments have spent billions on their
favoured carbon-reduction method, carbon capture and storage — trapping
CO2 released by burning fossil fuels and pumping it into the ground —
but this method has yet to be perfected.
Many schemes are controversial and have shown mixed results in tests,
and the danger of unintended consequences is real, including further
catastrophic, irreversible damage to the climate system.
One major drawback with geoengineering is the mistaken idea that it can
be a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate
change. That many geoengineering projects are fraught with danger and
would not resolve the problem quickly enough or even effectively — and
would do little or nothing to resolve other fossil fuel problems such as
pollution — makes this a critical concern.
There's also the matter of who would decide what methods to apply and
when and where. The issue of "rogue" geoengineering has also cropped up
in my part of the world, when an American businessman working with the
Haida village of Old Massett dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the
ocean in 2012 for a salmon restoration and carbon-reduction project.
A U.K. Royal Society study concludes that "should only be considered as
part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change" and
carbon dioxide reduction methods should be preferred over more
unpredictable solar radiation management.
Scientists at the Berlin Social Science Research Centre suggest creating
"a new international climate engineering agency to coordinate countries'
efforts and manage research funding." Because some geoengineering is
likely unavoidable, that's a good idea. But rather than rationalizing
our continued use of fossil fuels in the false belief that technology
will enable us to carry on with our destructive ways, we really need
governments, scientists and industry to start taking climate change and
greenhouse gas emissions seriously. We can't just engineer our way out
of the problem.
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About Myrtle Macdonald
M.Sc. Applied (in Nursing
Research and Education), McGill University.
Myrtle is a retired
registered nurse living in Chilliwack now working with the local
chapter of the BC Schizophrenia Association. Myrtle was a street
nurse for many years in places like India and Montreal. She's 91 and
is one of the Voice's most popular contributors. We're
very fortunate to have her share her knowledge and wisdom with us.
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