In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The first chapter of Hamilton’s book “Earthmasters” made me feeling very pessimistic about our future prospects. According to Hamilton (and I believe him), the vast majority of climate scientists are screaming their heads off about our bleak future. And according to Hamilton, the well-known Dutch climate scientist Paul Crutzen has come out openly saying that, considering the current dire projections, the horrible outlook, geoengineering must be considered as a viable and perhaps necessary “Plan B.”

It is my opinion after reading the selections (and after a year of being in the climate science degree) that yes, in the future, it will likely come to this if drastic policy changes are not implemented in time. I see as my personal career goal right now to be one of the policy-makers and/or leaders working to solve climate change using the so-called “Plan A,” but looking at what has happened since the Kyoto Protocol in ’97 in multinational policy deliberation, after seeing failure (Copenhagen, mentioned in Hamilton) after failure (Paris Agreement), geoengineering is looking more and more necessary.

It is my hope that we never, never get to this point. Geoengineering, as seen in recent movies, can go horribly, horribly wrong. And it is hard to get it right, to get that correct balance of  not too effectual-not too ineffectual, partly because we don’t have complete understanding of the future strengths of feedbacks or forcings. The climate system is a very complicated thing, and throwing caution into the wind and taking your best guess can easily go wrong. A good analogue for the unpredictability of the future climate system is the well-known butterfly effect: one flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can cause a tornado in Texas weeks later. There are too many variables to account for, and geoengineering has too much potential for disaster to use anytime soon. However, that is not to say that it should not be used as a last last last last last-minute option. If we start to face massive economic and political instability or mass death, geoengineering (cloud-seeding, or what have you) must be considered and used. In the meantime, let’s focus on less risky options, namely multinational policy conferences like Paris. What prevented this agreement from working, as I see it, was not a lack of scientific evidence, but rather politicization, especially in the US and China. The solution before anything, before anything that reads like a action movie synopsis, must be found in politics.

Could Geoengineering Be Our Plan B?

The fate of human existence is hanging in the balance. Climate change is the single greatest threat ever presented to human life, yet too many of us seem to be ignoring it. We see the numbers and hear the prognosis and we don’t listen. Global temperatures are currently projected to rise 3.5 degrees celsius if countries follow through on all climate change mitigation that they have agreed to and 6 degrees celsius if they do not. The projections of atmospheric CO2 levels are up towards 700ppm, which there is no coming back from. We go through our lives the same way we always have, refusing to cut emissions and refusing to limit out environmental impact. If we continue to ignore the problems we have created, our fate will be sealed. We must accept and adapt to the circumstances we have created or we will die.

Plan A was to cut emissions which is proving to be harder for everyone than had been hoped. So what is plan B? Adaptation through geoengineering. Geoengineering was originally taboo but in recent years it has gained much more popularity and peaking much interest in the global community of climate change fighters. There is, however, still controversy surrounding geoengineering because people don’t like the idea of humans taking control of the earth’s climate (like we don’t already have a great impact on the earth’s climate).  But we need some way to fix the damage we have done or at least help stop further damage from happening. Geoengineering could be that way.

Even if geoengineering seems to be too invasive for some people, doing nothing is far worse. If there is a climate emergency, we won’t be able to fix it. We have to try to stop things before they happen and trying to limit our environmental impact by cutting back is not working. We need to buy ourselves time to fix what we’ve done and geoengineering can provide us with that time. We need to fix what we have done and geoengineering can help us pull back the amount of atmospheric CO2. No matter what we need to act and though geoengineering may not be the perfect option we cannot wait for the perfect one to present itself or it will be too late.


Geoengineering: Is it worth the risk?

Despite the major environmental risks of geoengineering, without it, global warming will certainly have equally disastrous consequences if we fail to stop emitting carbon dioxide. Even if we do manage to completely stop all greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of climate change are slow to take effect, so the world will continue to experience delayed warming and climate shifting even after emissions are stopped. This doesn’t even include the need to reverse the damage that’s already been done due to warming: desertification, decreased crop yields, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and sea level rise, to name a few. Therefore, to reverse current warming and counteract the onset of future warming, geoengineering may be necessary in addition to stopping emissions. If this was the case, injecting sulphates into the atmosphere might have less drastic consequences if they were to be stopped, since no further carbon would have been emitted since starting the injections. However, there would likely still be a sudden increase in temperature, just hopefully not as much. If sulphate injections did become necessary, perhaps decreasing the amount gradually would prevent any dramatic changes in climate or global temperature.

Another insight I contrived while reading the article was how similar it was to another “article” (more of a short story) that I read for my Science of Global Warming class. It’s titled “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” by Oreskes and Conway. Narrated from the perspective of a future historian, it recounts the fall of our current civilization due to our failure to act against climate change. Though it’s fictional, it “reports” similar information as the factual Hamilton article. For example, the future historian explains alarming increases in emissions, like the 3% annual increase described by Hamilton that occurred when China’s economy rapidly developed. Interestingly, both articles were written in 2013, which suggests that the fictional report was based on concurrent knowledge. Furthermore, the Oreskes and Conway essay explained that what “saved mankind” was some kind of microbe that could cool the planet, suggesting that they believed in the potential of geoengineering, as well.

However, for the most part, I take the same stance as many environmentalists when it comes to geoengineering; although I think it is important to have as a backup plan in case of emergency, it is ultimately merely a way of covering up the problem of continued greenhouse gas emissions. As climate conditions worsen, hopefully powerful denialists will be scared into eliminating fossil fuels to save themselves. We just have to hope that this doesn’t happen too late.

Geoengineering: the only option left?

As presented in this article, the necessity for geoengineering may be the only direction the world can go in order to combat climate change. Although it would be simpler, cleaner and a more direct fix to work together as a whole to lower emissions, this is not likely to occur in the time frame required: decades ago. However, this does bring up the question, how do people feel about geoengineering? There are obvious cautions that people fear. How safe is it to have the government in control of the weather? What are the unforeseen side effects that could possibly do more harm than good? Could this technology be used for harm as well, creating a weapon? All of these are great questions, however, before we quarrel the idea of geoengineering, first we must have a prototype to squabble over.

As we so far, to the best of my knowledge, do not have such a technology to be considered a tool to help protect the environment, I believe it to be a pointless argument to oppose. The necessity for geoengineering far surpasses the fears that could result from the technology that is created. It is in the best interest of the world for nations to invest money and time into geoengineering, as this may have become the only hope that we have left.

However, how can we convince the nations that geoengineering is the way to go when currently many of the world leaders are making no attempts to change the habits of wastefulness, and burning of carbon-based fuels. This is a complex and constant uphill battle. In order for money to be used to develop new technologies that could potentially provide humans with a safe home for thousands of years in the future, first we must come to a group realization that climate change is a threat, and that it is too late to reverse that damage that has been done. Although this is not a pleasant outcome to think about, burying our heads in the sand is not going to provide any solutions to the crisis at hand. But I haven’t lost faith yet. Humans have accomplished amazing feats, many seemingly impossible until completed. There is still hope that we can combat this because, at this point, hope is really all we have left.

Geoengineering: Pipe Dream of the Anthropocene?

How Do You Think We Should Tackle Climate Change?” by America’s Power is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About two or three summers ago I watched a movie called “Snowpiercer.” The film was set in a future ice age that was caused by humans spraying a chemical into the air they thought would counteract rising global temperatures. When I first saw the movie, I thought that was a ludicrous plot device allowed under the creative liberty of science- fiction films. I did not know that it was an (albeit fictional) example of geoengineering, or that such a subject of scientific research existed.

In the movie, the ice age resulted from a miscalculation in the Earth’s climate feedback effects, and how Earth systems respond to changes in climate. This fact- that some current climate models do not properly take feedback effects into account- is pointed out in Earthmasters. For me, this is the chief logistical reason why I think the dangers of geoengineering outweigh the potential benefits. Properly modeling how one system responds to changes is already a difficult task. This is even more difficult when a system responds to changes nonlinearly, like most Earth systems. If an attempt at geoengineering goes wrong the consequences can be severe. A successful model would be necessary to ensure that there would be no unforeseen consequences. I can not imagine a point in the near- future where we would be able to accurately model the response of all relevant systems to a geoengineering attempt.

Moving from the logistics of it all to the concept in general, I am not very inclined to support geoengineering and the benefits it can offer, because it’s not really a true solution to the problem. I thought the metaphor used in Graeme Wood’s article was particularly appropriate, that “blocking the sun does nothing to stop the buildup [of GHGs]… it’s like fighting obesity with a corset, and a diet of lard and doughnuts.” It’s just procrastinating a problem that no one wants to address- the need to reduce emissions and live more sustainably. It’s procrastination with the hopes that we’ll have the technology to, for example, pump sulfates into the atmosphere for long enough that the problem will be transferred onto a future generation. Continuing to focus exclusively on technological solutions won’t be the only answer to our problems. Ultimately we’d just be trimming leaves. As unappealing as trying to change society sounds, it’s the only thing that’s going to address the root of the problem. I sympathize with the individuals quoted in the readings about how encouraging carbon emission reductions is seeming more and more futile, but I’m not inclined to believe that geoengineering necessarily presents a better path.

The Pros and Cons of Geoengineering

This week’s readings “Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering” by Clive Hamilton and “Re-Engineering the Earth” by Graeme Wood both look at possible solutions to climate change thanks to the possibilities geoengineering brings and the potential risks and moral ambiguity that comes with them. While some geoengineering ideas are outlandish and seemingly unachievable, like meddling with people’s DNA, there are some cheap and doable options as well, such as shooting sulfur aerosols into the air to block out sunlight. It is nice to know that we actually have the technology to help stop climate change. It gives me hope to know that there are cheap solutions that could be feasibly implemented globally. That being said, I can’t help but have serious doubts about geoengineering. As pointed out in Hamilton’s book, geoengineering could result in a moral hazard, where governments revert all the work they have done to cut emissions because they think geoengineering will just counteract any damage they create. Although from the outside geoengineering appears to the perfect, affordable solution, there are serious issues with it. Not only could governments just stop cutting carbon emissions, but by trying to eliminate climate change through geoengineering the earth could still be harmed. While the majority of people may fair better with geoengineering, there could be negative effects that affect a small portion of the global population.

In my opinion, I think that geoengineering should be used in the emergency scenario. While I can see the benefits of using geoengineering as a preventive measure, we shouldn’t purely rely on geoengineering as a solution. If we are to use geoengineering outside of an emergency scenario, then I believe we should do that in tandem with cutting down carbon emissions. I know I personally don’t trust in our society enough to believe that we would continue to cut carbon emissions if we used geoengineering as a preventative measure. However, I do think it is a great option if we were to experience some kind of climate emergency.

Let’s Talk About Solutions

All of fall term articles and papers have been about the dawn of a dystopian society, that somehow we are all going to die due to climate change. The paper “Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering” by Clive Hamilton, does not give a bleak view of the future instead seems to really show that there are solutions that are usable, humans just have to agree and use a solution. Many solutions may be more dangerous than others, and many will be cheaper than others.

Looking into the morality of using these solutions is important to determine which solution is the best one. “Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering” as well as the the article “Re-Engineering the Earth” by Graeme Wood, talks about many radical ways that geo-engineering can go to reverse climate change. The chances are the longer it takes for humans to change the environment the more radical and less ethical of a solutions humans will have to take. There is also the matter of making it a government or a commercial obligation in many western societies and would taking money (through taxes) be unethical?

The best way to reverse climate change caused by humans is to lower carbon emissions. That however appears to be unlikely because even so called “third world countries” are now trying to industrialize and to industrialize means to take advantage of energy. Morals and ethics would need to be deeply examined and intertwined with science to do the most morally correct thing, which may turn out to be nothing at all.

“Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering” and “Re-Engineering the Earth” really hit home for me because for the first time we are really examining solutions that humans could do to effectively reverse the effects of climate change if we as humans ever get to that point. So often people complain about the problem of climate change without ever talking about solutions so it was great to read about solutions.

Are We Ready to Set the Earth’s Thermostat?

I found this reading to be the most interesting yet this year. Especially because it is so easy to understand both people who see this as usable technology now, and those who want to ban it forever. My main concern with this technology is that we will become dependent on it to a dangerous extent. The author of these articles pointed out the moral considerations that should be made before the deployment of such a technology. However, the morally optimal thing to do would seemingly be to continue emitting to whatever extent the free market wishes before renewable slowly take over, while continuing to hold the temperature at preindustrial levels with aerosols in the stratosphere. However this just kicks the can down the line a little farther, and poses serious questions. Could we agree on a temperature to set the planet to? For example, Russia may want the temperature to be warmer for their agriculture and exports while Africa may want it to be colder than it was pre industrially. No matter what temperature it is set to, some countries will lobby for an artificially warmer or cooler world. Additionally, we continue to forget about ocean acidification. Continuing to emit carbon dioxide, while also essentially refrigerating the ocean, would make ocean acidification even worse while allowing us to exacerbate the situation for even longer.

Despite these concerns, after these readings I definitely still think that geoengineering still has a role to play in helping us stop climate change. Firstly I think any technology to directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere should be pursued to the greatest possible extent. I also think that international pressure on each and every country to decrease its emission as soon and as fast as possible must be the utmost priority of global politics. However I think we should begin ramping up solar radiation blocking aerosol technology immediately. I do not see the harm if there is a slow ramp up. If it were up to me at this point, each year, a panel of scientists would get together and asses the most likely path of carbon dioxide concentration and this increase in temperature over the next one hundred years. Based on this they would project a linear ramp up of aerosol injection that would ensure that we would not reach the “safe” limit of 2 degrees Celsius. This seems to me to be the best solution. It would maintain the motivation to cut emissions, as 2 C would still be disastrous. It would also be able to adapt each year based on the progress on emissions reductions and be able to compensate for any acceleration of temperature increase. Perhaps, if it had been determined that solar management produced many fewer negative effects than the avoided warming, we could increase the effect to decrease temperatures preemptively as global emissions fell to zero. The hope would be that, eventually, we could stop injecting aerosols as we removed carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. I have no idea whether this plan would be taken advantage of by industry or whether it would still cause a dependence on the technology. However, I think it is undeniable that solar radiation must remain an option on the table.

Is there a “Right” Answer?

After reading the first two chapters of “Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering” by Clive Hamilton, it left me with a dilemma that is extremely difficult to wrap my mind around and even begin to think about solving. Hamilton defines geoengineering as “deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects”. He uses the phrase “dumping waste into the sky” to discuss the dangerous levels of carbon dioxide that have been eating away at the atmosphere, something that humans have caused on extreme scales. Hamilton brings up a point that I found alarming, that the IEA believes that the world will heat up by 3.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, and essentially there would not be natural sources of ice left on the planet. It is difficult to even imagine a world where winter probably will not exist.

Geoengineering could possibly slow down these effects on the atmosphere and the quickly approaching heat of the planet, but Hamilton discusses in the second chapter around the ethical standpoints and justification for directly attempting to change the environment. The main three justifications are to buy time, to address the climate emergency and to do it in the best way possible from an economic standpoint.

All in all, I left this article feeling a sense of moral dilemma myself, because the possible solutions to climate change are more complex than I can wrap my brain around. What if tampering with the ocean or atmosphere has adverse effects that make the problem even worse? What if not trying at all leads to an even more catastrophic world? Hamilton addresses the fact that he even does not know the right answer to these questions at the end of the first paragraph, but that he hopes to form an opinion throughout and by the end of this book.

Possible Solutions and Drawbacks

Towards the end of this reading the author starts pointing towards more iterative smaller step solutions to the climate change problem. I had this idea in the back of my mind throughout the reading, but more specifically implementing little pieces of plan B with a mix of plan A as well. A good potential solution (in my mind) would be to implement some of the sulphate aerosol spraying to  make Earth habitable (temperature-wise), while also implementing methods to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (if we have a way to) and also reducing carbon emissions. This three part solution may buy us time to reduce carbon emissions – since there is so much push back on that – while also maintaining a livable environment (for the most part). However, I am sure there are many unintended consequences of these actions, because we have a limited understanding of the system as a whole and all the possible interaction effects between variables.

One of my biggest concerns with sulphate spraying is its main purpose – blocking out sun energy. The sun is vital to so many processes on Earth. Will we still be able to grow vegetation to eat if the sun is blocked out? Most plants are photosynthetic, so will they still be able to get enough energy to grow and thrive? And if they can’t, will humans be able to harvest enough food to feed ourselves? What about other species? Will they still have enough food to survive? Will plunging them into a long winter mess with them? Make some animals stop breeding? Make some animals hibernate for too long? This isn’t Game of Thrones, our Earth isn’t accustomed to extensively long winters, and every animal sure isn’t adapted to extended cold. But every animal is also not adapted to excessive heat.

As you can see, every possible solution has it’s concerns and limitations, but hopefully we can find a solution that best fits the needs of the whole world. Not just rich people and corporations that hold the power right now.

Geoengineering: A Fast Approaching Plan B

 As an earth science major with an interest in natural hazards and mitigation, engineering is a huge part of how we deal with these hazards. This article was extremely applicable to some of the things I want to be involved in upon graduation. I vividly remember taking an atmospheric science class at OSU. In one of the labs, after having a full understanding of all of the feedback loops and complexities of the atmosphere, we learned about some of the different scientific propositions to mitigate climate change. These were swept under the rug one by one as we discussed why each one is improbable. However, I do agree, considering our dire political situation, that climate change is irreversible at this point. Maybe we actually do need to consider doing something more drastic like one of the geo engineer propositions proposed by Clive Hamilton.

Throughout my course work at OSU I’ve also learned a great deal about “The Year Without A Summer” which occurred in 1816. This event  was due to extreme levels of aerosols- specifically sulfate- in the atmosphere caused by a volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora. This caused widespread cooling especially in North Western Europe resulting in large famines and weather anomalies. One of the propositions is essentially to reproduce an event like this. This is something we could face if the proper calculations are not made and if we do not closely monitor while executing this. Although it is easy to see the thing that will go wrong, imagine what could go right. We need a solution if the governments and people are not willing to change. This has been seeming like one of the best options, obviously at a lower level than the Mount Tambora eruption.

Many of the other proposed mitigation methods including human engineering seem outrageous…for now.

It’s Not Just a Home

Flooding in Tuvalu due to sea level rise.

Losing something important to you is always painful, whether it be a loved one, a tradition, or in the case of climate refugees, an entire home town. I was very impacted by the quote from a Tuvaluan woman, expressing that it would be “really hard for us to accept that we’re no longer on the map.” A physical environment holds so many unique sights, smells, and other sensory experiences that give people that sense of home that’s hard to achieve anywhere else; just think of last week’s discussion of soundscaping, and how greatly someone can be affected by even just the sounds of their physical surroundings.

The magnitude of this devastation prompted me to wonder about ways to soften the blow for climate refugees. Although I was interested in the first chapter of Figuroa’s book, I think I would be more interested in subsequent chapters, where I could learn more about specific potential measures to mitigate culture loss. In the present and future, there is no way to avoid relocating entire populations. However, through restorative justice, all parties can work together to gain an understanding of refugees’ feelings of loss, and to make their transition as smooth as possible. Perhaps one of the best ways to do this is to build communities that foster and maintain connections between fellow refugees, because much of a culture lies within the unity and common values of the people themselves. Their home may be gone, but preserving their interpersonal connections can help keep at least parts of their culture alive. In this way, assimilation may not be ideal, if it breaks apart the once unified community; however, some assimilation is inevitable because of having to comply with the systems of their new country  of residence.

Another way to help refugees mourn the loss of their home would be to create a symbolic memorial. I fully believe in the power of art to communicate and heal, and I think artistic memorials created by a refugee artist(s) could act as a sort of spot for reflection and healing. Placing an object of the original culture in a new environment could also act as a metaphor for the fact that cultures are constantly evolving, and this relocation, however jarring, is just another part of the evolution.

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities