To Research or Not to Research?

The Risks of Taking Geoengineering Seriously

“We need more research!” This was the rallying call of climate scientist and MIT alum David Keith ’91 at the Geoengineering Symposium held at MIT just over a week ago. This is, of course, the scientist’s traditional response when challenged, but when considering research in geoengineering, the risk is that we may be damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Touted as a treatment for climate change, geoengineering is the intentional large-scale manipulation of the climate in order to mitigate the effect of the 9.1 × 109 tonnes of carbon we dump into the atmosphere every year. At the symposium the most discussed strategy was injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching earth.

This controversial tool for tackling climate change is receiving increasing amounts of attention. CNN reported on the MIT symposium and the final chapter of SuperFreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt’s new book, is dedicated entirely to advocating geoengineering as our insurance policy should global warming really exist.

But geoengineering is in no way a perfect solution, no matter what Levitt claims. Proponents hope that geoengineering will change the climate in an exactly equal-and-opposite way to the climate change induced by rising CO2 levels, but this is simply impossible. Geoengineering is not the same as a reduction in CO2 emissions, and so we cannot expect it to have the same effect as a reduction in CO2 emissions. No matter how much research we do we cannot change this — geoengineering will always be imperfect, and dangerous. The only thing research achieves is assessing if geoengineering can work and what the side effects may include.

Geoengineering research may be the Pandora’s box of the 21st century. When have humans ever developed a technology and then chosen not to implement it? Although Geoengineering is treated as our savior from rising sea levels, further biodiversity loss, and the pain of cutting back on our fossil fuel addiction, its side effects could be equally appalling as the impacts of rising CO2 levels. The Earth’s climate is complex and it is legitimate to ask: How can we try to engineer a system that we do not understand?

Many scientists also worry that talking about geoengineering distracts from the real task of mitigation and adaptation and that it gives politicians room to squirm out of a climate deal this December in Copenhagen. When worrying about the costs of transition to a carbon-neutral economy, the cheap solution of geoengineering certainly is attractive. Mitigation, however, only appears expensive because we currently do not have to pay anything for dumping our extremely harmful pollutants into the environment.

In any case, our lack of understanding of the Earth’s climate is such that we may already have passed the “safe” level of atmospheric CO2 without realizing it. The long memory of the climate system (one third of the CO2 released today will still be in the atmosphere in 10,000 years time) and the inherent time lag between CO2 emissions and their effects mean that even if we all stopped breathing today, global climate change may still be inevitable. So, if mitigation is not sufficient alone to avoid catastrophic global warming, geoengineering could be used to address the worst of climate change, although this raises another question: When should we press the emergency geoengineering button?

Meanwhile, as the debate about geoengineering heats up (along with our climate), U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern, and Lars Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, have all recently admitted that it is very unlikely any legally binding treaty will be signed in Copenhagen. Which means maybe David Keith is right. Now is the time for research.

Erasmus K. zu Ermgassen is an exchange student from the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge-MIT Exchange program.