What if the richest few in our society had control over the weather? With the advent of geoengineering—a wide variety of technologies which could be used to artificially adjust the climate in response to global climate change—this scenario could be our future.
Professor Jim Falk is a Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute who is currently researching issues related to geoengineering. He spoke to me about the difficulties of introducing these technologies.
“Somebody like a Bill Gates, perhaps supported by some small countries that are already feeling the effects of climate change in a big way, could unilaterally embark on a project to put sulphates [into the atmosphere], or to alter the planet’s albedo [the amount of solar radiation reflected from the Earth and back into space] in a major way to reduce the impacts of global warming,” explained Falk. While it’s frightening to imagine billionaires having even more power in our neoliberal society, the private sector taking initiative may be one way to circumvent the hurdles related to the use of geoengineering technologies.
The most prominent suggestion for global solar radiation management is spraying sulphate particles into the stratosphere. As opposed to the tactic behind increasing albedo, which is to bounce the sun’s energy back into space, stratospheric aerosol injection would prevent energy from entering the atmosphere in the first place.
As a global strategy, the benefits of sulphate injection would be felt by numerous countries, but so would the drawbacks. There are concerns about the potential impacts of sulphate spraying—not least of which is that it would only reduce temperatures rather than the amount of carbon in the air, the true root of the problem. As Falk explained, “You become dependent on [sulphate spraying] … The very fact that it stops pretty quickly and goes back to equilibrium if you stop putting the sulphates into the atmosphere means that you could plunge the Earth suddenly back into a major warming scenario—much worse because you’ve got used to the idea that you can stuff all that [carbon] into the atmosphere and get away with it. So that combines the issue of locking yourself in an addicted way into this major albedo modification, and at the same time becoming highly dependent on it.”
A major warming scenario, to be clear, is not just hotter summers and higher seas. The Disaster Alley report, written by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt and published by the National Centre for Climate Restoration, described warming of three degrees celcius as resulting in “outright chaos”, and Kevin Anderson, a Professor of Energy and Climate Change, considers four degrees celcius of warming “incompatible with an organised global community”. Picture storms, disease, famine and floods. Picture countless refugees and violent conflicts. Picture mass extinction and the utter collapse of ecosystems. And we are already at one degrees celcius of warming.
In addition, Falk said, “Whatever you do, it is going to alter the weather patterns and climatological patterns across the planet’s surface. So it may be, for example, that if you put sulphates into the stratosphere that you will cool the planet by a certain amount, but you will cause a shift in the rain patterns in Australia, on average, shifting them away from our continental mass and into the sea.” To quote the Farm Equipment Association of Minnesota and South Dakota: “We owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” If we lose the rain, it is fairly easy to imagine what happens next.
Given these drawbacks, coming to a global consensus that we should move forward with drastic forms of geoengineering would be difficult—“probably worse than the problem we have about getting a global consensus to pull our emissions back”, as Falk pointed out. While he believes geoengineering could be introduced without consensus “or even necessarily majority support”, there would be “a lot of international tension around that”.
Even with all these issues, though, there is a real possibility that we may have to choose between geoengineering and catastrophic levels of warming. While it would be preferable, and more effective, to reduce emissions while we still have time, if we continue on our current path it will soon be too late. In this case, it may be useful to have geoengineering technologies such as solar radiation management waiting in the wings.