The New Yorker has a real corker of a story online on possible tech fixes to combat climate change. Titled ‘The Climate Fixers,’ the article examines so-called ‘geoengineering’ efforts to halt increasing global temperatures that are a result of carbon dioxide emissions. It’s a fascinating and essential read for anyone who, well, hopes to still be living on this planet for the next 50 years or so.
‘Geoengineering’ is the general idea of attempting to ‘ameliorate global warming by deliberately altering the climate of the earth.’ Just the thought of that, I must admit, makes my mind spin. Is this really possible? And is it a good idea?
Thankfully, Michael Specter’s piece does a splendid job of answering these questions from several angles. His answers seem to be, in brief: 1) it is very likely possible, and 2) it has risks, but it is probably better than the alternative of doing nothing against climate change.
The bulk of the article focuses on ‘solar-radiation management,’ which means limiting solar radiation and thus keeping the planet cool. In practical terms, this would likely mean pumping large amounts of sulfates into the atmosphere, preventing the full effect of the sun’s rays from reaching the surface of the earth. This seems to be the most likely possibility to ‘succeed,’ but also very disruptive in terms of other climate-based activities on the planet.
Specter also looks at ways of capturing carbon dioxide at the source or in the atmosphere and removing it to a benign location. The technology for this seems less certain, but if it can succeed, would apparently be less disruptive to society as a whole (except for the cost).
The whole thing is a bit of a depressing read, as Specter points out that the most effective and certain strategy would be to drastically cut down on burning fossil fuels and locate alternative sources of energy. But since efforts to achieve that are technologically or politically unfeasible at present, we need to consider a Plan B, which may have to be a geoengineering solution.
Unfortunately, geoengineering also faces major political and policy hurdles before it can be implemented. Yet ironically, ‘the least risky approach politically is also the most dangerous: do nothing until the world is faced with a cataclysm and then slip into a frenzied crisis mode.’
The question is, will we able to find the political will to take some kind of action against climate change before that cataclysm occurs?