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Geoengineering Climate Change

Last month, an unusually optimistic development regarding climate change garnered international attention at the UN Environmental Assembly conference. A new study on solar geoengineering, published by America’s preeminent climate scientists, demonstrated that diminishing the incoming sunlight on earth could actually safely combat global warming. Within a week of the study’s publication, the UN General Assembly introduced a resolution requesting a report on the topic. However, the US, acting nearly alone among other UN members, blocked it. President Trump’s rationale for the vote is near indecipherable, as geoengineering, which encompasses all large-scale efforts to manipulate the climate, represents the rare climate change policy that receives bipartisan support in the US. Support is less widespread among climate scientists and activists, with some leaders in the fields wholly opposed to these methods. By definition, geoengineering alters global climate irreversibly and carries risks that makes it potentially catastrophic environmentally and geopolitically. Geoengineering urgently demands formalized international discussion and protocol, and the US should lead this effort to protect human rights, promote intergenerational justice, and prevent geopolitical conflict.

Geoengineering, the technological approach to countering the effects of climate change, includes at least a dozen tactics, from employing enormous carbon-sequestering fans to sending trillions of tiny, sunlight-deflecting robots into space. Although such methods may sound ludicrous, some in the private sector have already begun implementing them. In 2012, a California businessman in want of carbon credits, that is, permits to emit greenhouse gasses under the state’s cap and trade system, dumped 100 tons of iron into the Pacific Ocean to increase plankton populations and thereby capture carbon, a process known as “ocean fertilization.” With millions of dollars of funding, a California engineer has also begun a worldwide campaign to blanket more than 19,000 square miles of ice with tiny silica spheres that deflect sunlight. Climate change vigilantes taking up the cause without government support may sound admirable, but the potential adverse effects of geoengineering for both human and environmental well-being are too great to justify independent, unregulated action.

Scientists and activists have largely agreed that solar geoengineering should be avoided as it is inherently unjust, with some regions harmed through decreased sunlight and others benefitting. Yet, the recent study, which analyzes a strategy involving the spraying of an aerosol into the atmosphere, belies this popular wisdom and suggests solar geoengineering can bring global benefits. The aerosol’s effects are similar to those experienced after a volcanic eruption sprays ash, namely, blocked sunlight and reduced global temperatures. In the past, the principal issues associated with this method have been fears of reduced water availability and increased natural disasters for regions in the Southern Hemisphere. So the study examined the impact of decreased global warming and diminished sunlight on tropical cyclones or hurricanes, water availability, extreme precipitation (i.e., flooding), as well as on mean and maximum temperatures on every subcontinent. They found the intensity of hurricanes fell by over 75% everywhere, and every other aspect of climate at least halved on each subcontinent. Despite these optimistic findings, even the authors of the study emphasize that geoengineering technologies could prove catastrophic without regulation.

As the recent study confirms solar geoengineering is becoming more reality than fantasy, inclusive international discourse is urgently needed to regulate future experimentation and implementation. Geoengineering will inevitably create a power dynamic between those who control the technology and who do not, risking an increase in global inequality and degradation of human rights, most likely for marginalized groups or less wealthy or powerful states. Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable, as solar geoengineering can alter agricultural opportunities, historic weather patterns, and uses of land, thus depriving groups of their land, ways of life, and even self-determination, but geoengineering can impact the right to food, health, water, life, and livelihood for everyone. These fears are so great that climate justice advocates have united to write a manifesto railing against geoengineering and the potential it has to damage their communities. Unfortunately, so far, these voices have not been part of a solar geoengineering discussion dominated by technocrats and the political elite.

To ensure equitable experimentation and deployment of geoengineering technology, the United States should formalize international discussion, ideally through the United Nations, that prioritizes the voices of those most threatened by the technology, including indigenous groups, low-income populations, and developing countries. As the Rio Convention, a 1992 UN declaration, explained nearly two decades ago, human beings are at the center of the threats posed by climate change, and the ramifications for those most at risk must be prioritized in any public discussion on environmental policy. Simultaneously, conflicts of interest, including fossil fuel industry interests and stake-holders or investors in geoengineering companies, will need to be eliminated from international talks to ensure individual and corporate profits are not prioritized in decisions that affect the entire planet. Discussion that emphasizes inclusion of disenfranchised groups will promote policy that prioritizes human rights even if it’s at the cost of rapid technological progress.

While these discussions take place and until international agreement is reached, a moratorium on solar geoengineering should be implemented. There is even more at risk than indigenous and human rights: these techniques threaten environmental well-being for future generations and can lead to large-scale geopolitical conflict. Some scientists compare the discovery of geoengineering to that of nuclear weapons, arguing the situation is akin to a 21st century nuclear arms race, while others fear geoengineering technology will be exploited for financial gain. Any regulation reached at this international forum should ensure control is multilateral and use of the technology fulfills altruistic aims. These stipulations may be unpopular, especially among powerful countries, and it is very possible, even likely, that consensus will not be reached, in which case the moratorium should become indefinite. Although most modern governance methods do not apply easily to geoengineering, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons could represent a blueprint for an all-out ban on the technology. Geoengineering is not a desirable solution if it will erode the international order required to fight climate change.

Additionally, amidst their heated debate on whether geoengineering is a good idea, climate scientists resoundingly agree on one thing: that corporations, individuals, and states will still need to stop emitting fossil fuels regardless of whether large-scale geoengineering is undertaken. Geoengineering advocates deeply fear the use of their technologies without a reduction in carbon emissions, as it could bring the planet into a spiral of ever-increasing technological responses to environmental problems. The author of the aforementioned study explained the dangers of geoengineering using the concept of moral hazard, an insurance industry term for people’s tendency to take more risks when there is a safeguard in place. Those who see geoengineering as a “Plan B” to cutting carbon emissions, such as many in the fossil fuel industry, are unlikely to employ the recommended two-pronged approach and instead may increase emissions with geoengineering. A moratorium would guarantee that, for the time being, geoengineering will not be deployed without simultaneous reduction of fossil fuels.

With the lack of legislation on climate change, geoengineering is incredibly appealing as a solution. But the risks it carries for global justice, future environmental sustainability, and international peace are just as large as any promises. The United States’ actions last week at the UN vote were hardly representative of the attitude in Congress toward geoengineering. One can hope that President Trump realizes that it represents an approach that could make powerful figures in both the private and public sectors happy but also that responsible implementation is crucial to any measures that are proposed. Geoengineering is likely to shape worldwide climate change policy in coming years, and the United States has the opportunity to guarantee that future action aligns with the country’s ostensible aspirations of prosperity and justice across the world.  

Photo: “World Leaders at Rio 2012