Climate Action

Chemotherapy for the Climate-RFF Reviews Climate Engineering

Can we reverse climate change? If we can’t change our dependence on fossil fuels, perhaps technology affords us another solution; what else can we put in the atmosphere? It has long been observed that city smog helps lower temperature over time due to the reflectivity of the toxic particles. The same phenomena occurs when volcanoes spew massive amounts of ash into the air. So why can’t humans do that intentionally?A key staple of climate engineering is to spray sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere (upper atmosphere) where they will stay there long enough to counteract some of the greenhouse warming. This month, the NAS (US National Academy of Sciences) released a report detailing legal, ethical and political implications of research into climate engineering as well as implementation. Typically the two major forms of climate engineering would involve either removing carbon dioxide artificially from the atmosphere in the form of capture and storage, or adding reflective particles to the atmosphere (most likely sulfates). During a panel discussion which was conducted by Resources for the Future, a group of experts including The Hon. Bart Gordon (a former congressman), Admiral David Titley and David Goldston from the NRDC, concluded that ultimately, geoengineering should be utilized only as a last resort, after other mitigation and adaptation efforts have failed or are deemed unfeasible. “It may have a future role as an option that we have to exercise around the world,” said Gordon, “however what we know now would tell us we should not assume it’s an option or an attractive option available to us. Nobody should consider geoengineering as a substitute for cutting emissions and doing other work.” Admiral Titley described carbon capture and storage as “taking out the trash” and aerosols as “spraying perfume on the trash”, before going on to say that “we hope everyone is scared enough by this report so that we go back to mitigation as a solution.” Some of the major issues of geoengineering include the following:
  • Lack of sufficient modeling data- The implications of adding certain amounts of particulate matter to the stratosphere does not have a large base of models and/or projections with which advocates and policy makers can use to make an informed decision on implementation.
  • Who gets to initiate these projects?– There is a lot of uncertainty about how the global community can effectively agree on these projects or regulate it. Who gets to start climate engineering? An individual nation? A corporate entity outside the international structure altogether? And how is responsibility shared or delineated? None of this has really been worked out in the international arena.
  • Harmful side effects of geoengineering- Another important factor, which for now remains an unknown, is how these projects will affect the environment. There is some concern that adding sulfates to the stratosphere will help lead to drought, and that eventually when it falls back down to the lower levels of the atmosphere it will harm the ozone layer. Additionally, it may be very difficult to remove anything from the well-mixed atmosphere once we place it there (this is part of the issue with greenhouse gas emissions in the first place!)
  • High cost of geoengineering- At the scale at which these projects could meaningfully counteract climate change, it will be very expensive to take on any of these projects. Currently there is no budget or even a projection for what it would take to undergo some of these projects. Similarly, there is no policy outline that considers the scale or duration of these projects as of yet.
Ultimately, any geoengineering project will have to be supplemented by other measures, as even raising the albedo, or reflectivity, of the atmosphere will not be able to stop ocean acidification, trash pile-up, or any number of other difficulties which have emerged over the past several decades that have yet to be addressed. Overall, geoengineering is presented as a solution with harmful effects that nevertheless may be necessary in an emergency. Aaron Dorman, Intern