Artist’s impression of artificial trees that could be used to absorb carbon from the atmosphere
Geoengineering involves modifying natural planetary systems and processes in order to combat climate change by addressing the difference between incoming and outgoing solar radiation.
It is done either by reducing the incoming solar radiation, for instance by firing mirrors into space to divert sunlight, or by trapping carbon dioxide and storing it in long-term reservoirs, such as by dumping minerals into the sea to encourage greater absorption of CO2.
The idea of geoengineering inspires the same level of queasiness and unease as the thought of consuming some unrecognisable slurry that has been at the back of the fridge for far too long.
Perhaps that is an overstatement, but both geoengineering and nuclear energy share the accolade of being distrusted by gut instinct, which I generally consider to be fairly accurate.
Geoengineering is unnerving me, in the same way that nuclear energy is. Both concepts involve messing with something we don’t properly understand, like a kid sticking their finger into a plug socket.
Tinkering with the environment in order to satisfy the public that enough is being done about climate change, whilst having very little idea of how the sensitive systems involved are going to react, seem much the same when such a high degree of scientific uncertainty is involved.
It is particularly terrifying when the science behind it can be manipulated to justify changing very little about our lifestyles, and not tackling well-entrenched inequality on a national and international level without tackling wider issues.
On top of that, most of the proposals sound like science fiction: launching a field of mirrors into space? Mimicking a volcano by spraying sulphur into the atmosphere? Building metal trees to absorb carbon? The list continues.
The intentions are right, as without a binding international agreement and drastic action to curb emissions, there is little hope of achieving reduction targets, and geoengineering appears to provide a solution.
However, it is abundantly clear that there is no easy solution, and that the most realistic chance of change is incremental and attitudinal. Not a very sexy answer, unfortunately – whereas shiny solutions that involve space travel and chemicals certainly are.
There are definitely some defensible fixes, such as painting roofs white to deflect sunlight. Impractical, implausible and pretty ineffectual, but missing the harmful side effects that other strategies have; like tons of iron filings washing up on beaches along the Pacific due to a poor understanding of ocean circulation.
This week experts have said that Arctic summer sea ice will have completely melted in four years, and have called again for drastic action to be taken on climate change.
Prof. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University outlined the need for a dual approach in an email to the Guardian: “We must not only urgently reduce CO2 emissions but must urgently examine other ways of slowing global warming, such as … various geoengineering ideas.”
It is apparent that geoengineering has a place in the context of emissions reduction and curbing consumption, though it is necessity that has driven the scientific community thus far – had emissions cuts been made earlier, no doubt such dramatic steps would not have been needed.
Were things not looking so bleak, maybe we could steer away from tampering with what we don’t know, but either way it looks like soon we’re going to be sorry, whatever happens.