Geoengineering: Our last hope, or a false promise?

Clive Hamilton writes: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere recently surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in three million years. If you are not frightened by this fact, then you are ignoring or denying science.

Relentlessly rising greenhouse-gas emissions, and the fear that the earth might enter a climate emergency from which there would be no return, have prompted many climate scientists to conclude that we urgently need a Plan B: geoengineering.

Geoengineering — the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system to counter global warming or offset some of its effects — may enable humanity to mobilize its technological power to seize control of the planet’s climate system, and regulate it in perpetuity.

But is it wise to try to play God with the climate? For all its allure, a geoengineered Plan B may lead us into an impossible morass.

While some proposals, like launching a cloud of mirrors into space to deflect some of the sun’s heat, sound like science fiction, the more serious schemes require no insurmountable technical feats. Two or three leading ones rely on technology that is readily available and could be quickly deployed.

Some approaches, like turning biomass into biochar, a charcoal whose carbon resists breakdown, and painting roofs white to increase their reflectivity and reduce air-conditioning demand, are relatively benign, but would have minimal effect on a global scale. Another prominent scheme, extracting carbon dioxide directly from the air, is harmless in itself, as long as we can find somewhere safe to bury enormous volumes of it for centuries.

But to capture from the air the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by, say, a 1,000-megawatt coal power plant, it would require air-sucking machinery about 30 feet in height and 18 miles in length, according to a study by the American Physical Society, as well as huge collection facilities and a network of equipment to transport and store the waste underground.

The idea of building a vast industrial infrastructure to offset the effects of another vast industrial infrastructure (instead of shifting to renewable energy) only highlights our unwillingness to confront the deeper causes of global warming — the power of the fossil-fuel lobby and the reluctance of wealthy consumers to make even small sacrifices. [Continue reading…]

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1 thought on “Geoengineering: Our last hope, or a false promise?

  1. Aditya

    Democracy Now! recently had an informative feature on the subject, where Clive Hamilton examines why reactionary “free-market” groups (AEI, CATO) as well as venture capitalists like Bill Gates are all too eager to embrace this as a “solution” to catastrophic climate change.

    http://www.democracynow.org/2013/5/20/geoengineering_can_we_save_the_planet

    “AMY GOODMAN: The Heartland Institute describes geoengineering as, quote, “much less expensive than seeking to stem temperature rise solely through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” The Cato Institute argues that, quote, “geo-engineering is more [cost]-effective than emissions controls altogether.” And the Hudson Institute says geoengineering, quote, “could obviate the majority of the need for carbon cuts and enable us to avoid lifestyle changes.” Why are all these groups proponents of geoengineering?

    CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, one thing united about all of those groups is that they have a right-wing political vision. And so, what they like about geoengineering—bear in mind, incidentally, that the Heartland Institute, and another is—in this camp is the American Enterprise Institute, have spent many years repudiating climate science, attacking climate scientists and resisting all measures to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions. And yet here they are endorsing geoengineering, so a response to a problem they say does not exist. And the reason is that, in some cases, if the medicine is palatable, then the patient is more likely to admit that there is a disease or an illness. And in this case, the technological intervention in the climate system is acceptable to a certain kind of conservative thinking, because it, in a way, refuses to vindicate the warnings of environmentalists that there’s something profoundly wrong in our economic and political system, because geoengineering comes along and says, “Well, look, the system can solve the problem.”

    AMY GOODMAN: And which are the corporations that are most involved with this?

    CLIVE HAMILTON: Well, most corporations are kind of staying at arm’s length from all of this, as indeed governments are, for the time being. But quietly, behind the scenes, you can see them taking interest. There are a number of powerful or wealthy venture capitalists. Bill Gates is the sort of prominent player here. He’s invested in a range of geoengineering schemes. You can go to the U.S. patent office, and you’ll find Bill Gates’s name on a couple of patents for geoengineering. We’re also starting to see the oil companies, even Exxon, BP, Shell, starting to take an interest. They’re sort of pulling people into independent groups to produce reports, advocating research into geoengineering. And you’ve got some kind of rogue geoengineers, sort of cowboy capitalists, who are going out there right now and doing these kinds of experiments in the ocean, for example.”

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