By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant
Geoengineering has grabbed headlines recently after a panel of scientists at the National Academy of Sciences called for more research into manmade responses to climate change. Environmental groups have opposed geoengineering as a solution for fear of unknown environmental impacts. However, if the world cannot reduce carbon emissions fast enough to curb rising global temperatures, then geoengineering purports to offer a quick solution. However, little is known about the effectiveness or long term impacts of proposed interventions, prompting the call for additional research. Questions of who would control the technology and who it would benefit also need to be addressed. While geoengineering does not replace current carbon reduction efforts, it could provide an important backstop if those efforts fall short of their objectives.
Carbon emissions are themselves a form of unintentional geoengineering. During the Industrial Revolution, harmful emissions occurred long before the greenhouse effect became a global concern. Increased understanding of the phenomenon has led some countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but other countries are still increasing their emissions as they industrialize. China has used its ample coal reserves to satisfy its growing demand for electricity. Meanwhile, air quality in India’s capital, New Delhi, is the worst in the world due, in part, to the country’s lax emissions standards for coal power plants. Some emissions projections conclude that growing demand for fossil fuels will outpace carbon emissions reductions in the coming decades.
This stark possibility has elevated discussions about alternatives for combatting climate change. Prospective geoengineering projects approach the issue from one of two angles: carbon dioxide removal or limiting solar radiation. Carbon removal involves sucking carbon out of the air through biological processes like photosynthesis or manmade processes like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is already in practice to scrub emissions at coal power plants, but these systems are expensive to install and maintain. Expanded efforts to plant trees and reduce deforestation represent a benign form of carbon capture. Reducing solar radiation is less expensive than carbon removal, but the results will be equally complex. Releasing reflective particles high in the atmosphere would reflect incoming heat away from the earth, counteracting the insulating effect of greenhouse gasses. Given the number of variables, any geoengineering solution is bound to be as complicated as the issue of climate change itself.
While climate scientists and environmentalists debate geoengineering’s merits, psychologists are discovering how it shapes the climate change discussion. Though views on human contributions to rising temperatures tend to fall along partisan lines, views on geoengineering meet closer to the middle. Specifically, climate change skeptics view climate intervention more favorably while climate change advocates view such intervention less favorably. Because individuals on both sides of the climate debate associate their views with their political identity, introducing a third option forces thinking outside of the ideological divide. Even if geoengineering fails to gain popular support, bringing opposed viewpoints closer together could enable a breakthrough in some of the current political gridlock.
In addition to recommending geoengineering research, the National Academy of Sciences report emphasizes that “there is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change”. Investigating alternatives to emissions reductions is not an admission of defeat in the fight against rising temperatures, but an expansion of scientific knowledge. For any research and development problem, pursuing many ideas in tandem enhances the probability of success. Combatting climate change will likely require a portfolio of solutions in which emissions reductions and geoengineering play a part.