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Geo-engineering: should the world have a plan B?

December 24
12:00 2010

image Written By : Source: MEDIAGLOBAL. Imagine the day when time has run out to decrease carbon emissions. We find ourselves in a world where the temperature has risen upwards of 7 degrees Celsius. It is a world where both New York City and Bangladesh are under water, a world where category five hurricanes ravage unsuspecting coastlines, and drought pushes millions more people into starvation.
This is the world where scientists move to a plan B, also known as geoengineering. Geoengineering is the deliberate manipulation of the earth’s climate to counteract the effects of global warming. Like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, this technological quick fix would inject sulfates into the stratosphere and rapidly cool the planet.
The consequences of such a drastic atmospheric alteration however, could conceivable change ecosystems to such an extent, that the world would be no better than before. For this reason, the element of the unknown, geoengineering is one of the latest issues to divide the environmental world.

The history
Geoengineering is not a new concept. It was first proposed in 1905 by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, who wrote about the connections between technology and its possible uses on the climate. But it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that geoengineering was seriously proposed as an emergency method to cool the earth’s temperature.
Most scientists either believed that the notion of artificially changing the climate was too radical or that environmental policy would step in to reduce emissions and such an extreme solution would never be necessary. Almost forty years later, policy is still slow to make progress, carbon emissions are climbing and geoengineering, once a far-flung notion, seems much less radical.
The science behind geoengineering consists of multiple strategies but the one currently receiving the most attention from scientists has been coined “SRM,” for solar radiation management. The proposal: that through drastic technologies including solar ray deflection, cloud whitening, and injecting aerosol sulphates into the stratosphere, science can be used to cool the earth’s temperature rapidly and effectively should dire circumstances require immediate action.

The controversy
Like most new technologies though, this one has brought with it both political controversy and alarming scientific uncertainty.
The entire concept of even having a “plan B” has infuriated many activists. Diana Ross of the H.O.M.E., (Hands Off Mother Earth) campaign told Media Global, “If you have a difficult problem, where international action has been woefully inadequate, and someone comes in with a solution that’s cheap and fast and effective, it takes the pressure off of addressing the real problem and takes us in the wrong direction. It has nothing to do with reducing consumption and production and restoring ecosystems. Instead it provides a techno-fix that could go horribly wrong.”
Scientists agree that the consequences of deploying geoengineering are extremely unpredictable. A twelve-month extensive study conducted by the Royal Society concluded that deploying it could result in depletion of the stratospheric ozone, extreme changes in regional weather and rain patterns, as well as unpredictable effects on multiple ocean currents.
Scott Barrett, Professor of Natural Resources at Columbia’s Earth Institute, agreed. “Yes, it may not preserve the current distribution of climate. Areas that are warm and dry may not necessarily be warm and dry after geoengineering is used. We need research to find out what effects will be.”
Ross stated, “Some climate models have shown that geoengineering will interrupt African and Asian summer months which puts the food supplies of up to 2 billion people at risk.” She added, “This will wreak havoc on all different kinds of ecosystems.”
It is clear that more research is needed to better predict how the planet will respond to geoengineering. Thus far though, research has consisted mainly of computer-based climate modeling, and scientists are now running into road blocks with plans for actual experimentation. Opponents of experimentation claim that in order to determine the actual consequences of geoengineering, the technology would have to be tested on a large scale which would in essence mimic the actual deployment of the uncertain technology.
Barrett stated, “There are some people that would rather there be no research. In a way this is like the ostrich putting her head in the sand…you don’t want to see. But research might show that geoengineering doesn’t work well. And wouldn’t that be better to know now? It might show us that the side effects are very bad; it might show that it works quite well and the side effects are much less than expected. It’s hard to understand though, how we could be better off knowing less.”

International implications
“This needs to be considered by an international agreement on the possible deployment of the technology. If one country uses it, all countries will be affected, and the basic principle of international law say that countries have the responsibility not to cause harm to other countries,” said Barrett. He added, “If research shows that there are negative consequences there needs to be a discussion about when and how the technology is used which could include the offer of assistance to affected countries.”
The debate becomes more political when the issue of unintended consequences is raised. If rain patterns are redistributed, it is likely that developing countries, lacking the infrastructure to deal with such rapid and drastic changes will suffer most. But it is not developing countries that are working on this technology and therefore they are left out of the discussion.
“Well above 90 percent of the discussion is happening amongst white male scientists from developed countries,” Ross pointed out. “Occasionally someone else is invited, but the discussion is happening in the North in London and Washington, etc.
Overwhelmingly, the developing world is not part of this discussion. But climate change is a problem created by the North and it is the North who needs to fix it by cutting emissions. This is a distraction from cutting emissions.”
The questions continue accumulating relentlessly. How should experimentation be carried out? If it is permitted and successful, will having this back-up plan ease pressure on developed countries to decrease carbon emissions? Or, should there be a moratorium on experimentation to remove the plan B option altogether?
Barrett stated, “There should be prior notification on any experiments carried out, which will create space for dialogue and discussion; it should be open and transparent, but there shouldn’t be a ban on research. I understand the instinctive desire for it, but as people think about this more, they will realize that research is necessary.”
A moratorium has already been drafted and will be presented at the Conference of Parties (COP 10) next month in Nagoya, Japan. It will be policy makers that decide the fate of geoengineering and the fate of the global climate.

MediaGlobal is an independent international media organisation, based in the United Nations, creating awareness in the global media on social justice and development issues in the world’s least developed countries.

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