What is geoengineering, and can it solve global warming?
While a number of long-term efforts to reduce global warming are being undertaken – adopting renewable energy, energy efficiency, CO2 capture and so on – some bright chaps worldwide felt they could do something that can work within a much shorter period.
They essentially asked themselves, “Hey, look, instead of these civilized but gradual efforts, why can’t we try something that’s far more drastic but which could bring down global warming much more quickly?”
Many of these “drastic” ideas come under the broad umbrella of climate engineering.
Climate engineering, also known as geoengineering, describes a diverse and theoretical array of technologies and techniques for intentionally manipulating the global climate, in order to moderate or forestall some of the effects of climate change.
The broad idea is to artificially engineer our climate such that we are able to reduce or avoid the adverse effects of climate change.
Such geo-engineering technologies are commonly divided into
- Approaches designed to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – often referred to as greenhouse gas removal technologies, or GGR, and
- Approaches designed to reflect sunlight away from Earth – often referred to as solar radiation management technologies, or SRM.
While it sounds exciting, geo-engineering is still in its nascent stage owing to the attendant risks involved.
There are two main types of risks associated with these climate intervention approaches.
- One set of risks has to do with environmental science and intended or unintended consequences.
- The other risk is a set of social, political or even military risks.
In the case of environmental risks, offsetting of greenhouse gases by increasing the reflection of sunlight is not going to be perfect. Some regions could even end up being affected adversely – for instance, they might get much less rainfall than what they are currently getting. There is also concern about what the particles used during such geoengineering efforts might do to the ozone layer.
If you thought the environmental risks are challenging enough, social or political risks could be even more challenging. Imagine a scenario where the world has gotten much hotter, and China goes into a period of deep drought. The Chinese leaderships says, ‘We’re having a famine. Let’s put aerosols in the stratosphere to restore our climate.’ Imagine they do this and very soon the U.S. goes into a decade or two of similar deep drought. Whether the Chinese intervention was the cause of the American drought or not is almost irrelevant. The U.S. population is highly likely to blame the Chinese for the descent into arid conditions. Even God cannot predict what will happen next under such a scenario!
Thankfully, all the above scenarios are hypothetical, for now. Because currently, the field of climate engineering consists mainly of desk and laboratory studies and small-scale field research on some of the proposed methods. Perhaps it has potential, but no one in the world is bold enough to go ahead and try it on a large scale, at least not yet.
Read also: My review of Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.