“Geo-engineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year.” Newt Gingrich 2008
“Solar geoengineering solves everything! It’s great! We don’t need to bother to cut emissions.” President Trump 2017
“The main findings are that any implementation of stratospheric geoengineering could end catastrophically for many species. Although if geoengineering were ever done, it would not make sense to abruptly end it, there are credible scenarios where this might happen. Should society ever take that risk?” Alan Robock, Rutgers University
It is obvious that climate change will be the biggest challenge of this century and it is the gravest threat to humanity since we wandered out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. The existing burden of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the current rate of emissions requires us to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The goals of the Paris Agreement cannot be met without such large scale long term withdrawals. Because we have wasted decades fighting the fossil fuel industry and the anti-science political opposition of mostly Republican legislators, our situation is becoming urgent and geoengineering is appearing likely. There are manifold extreme risks associated with this approach to mitigation of climate change. Because geoengineering is likely to be a major factor in the lives of the current generation in college it is imperative that we understand just how current plans and technologies for hacking the planet are not ready for primetime and dangerous.
The IPCC and most other organizations concerned with mitigating climate change have long recognized the need for the drawdown of atmospheric CO2. The apparently twisted thinking of policy makers has led them to call this drawdown “negative emissions.” Say what? After years of using this term, I remain sadly unsurprised and embarrassed that scientists could have propagated such an apparently meaningless use of jargon. The scenarios to emerge from the UNFCCC Paris Agreement have scheduled drawdown to occur beyond the middle of this century, thus permitting a reduction in fossil emissions in a manner that will allow continued burning of Jurassic carbon to avoid the fictional near-term economic shock of shifting to a global economy based on renewables.
Drawdown later rather than early in the century means that the global average temperature may overshoot 2˚C for possibly 2–3 decades. This is especially troubling in light of a recent review of multiple lines of evidence showing that the minimum climate sensitivity to CO2 is higher than previously thought. This overshoot may cause several components of the Earth System to pass tipping points beyond which their return to their prior state will not be possible for millennia. Those parts include the Arctic sea ice, the Amazon Basin, and permafrost. Moreover, marine heatwaves and continued acidification of the oceans as a consequence of the emissions associated with breaching the 2˚C guardrail could be sufficient to cause widespread extinction of marine species. At this point, the UNFCCC has not brought forth a compelling plan for saving civilization and avoiding some of the most damaging effects of climate change.
The most alarming aspect of the development of geoengineering is the moral hazard presented by the involvement of the fossil fuel industries. Hacking the planet essentially guarantees that fossil fuels will continue to be burned. This industry has every intention of maximizing the use of fossil fuels through various proposals for how carbon dioxide can be captured and utilized. Even more troublesome are the financial conflicts of interest that scientists and engineers have because of their financial stake in the development of these technologies. While this approach may be attractive to some, deploying these technologies at sufficient scale to make a dent in the carbon burden of the atmosphere would incur huge costs in terms of impacts on additionality (the burning of fossil fuels to create a method of mitigation) and expenditures of precious resources. The social costs of mining and using fossil fuels would continue to produce numerous consequences for personal and public health.
It is utter insanity to jump through all these hoops in order for wealthy corporations and individuals to become richer. The far simpler solution is to stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible. It is reasonable to begin appropriate measures to immediately extract CO2 from the air without any intention of further mining and production of fossil fuels. Extraction will need to involve many different methods implemented simultaneously, while avoiding reliance on any single techno-fix with potentially devastating side effects. There is no longer any reasonable doubt that renewables can meet our needs. Our leaders and scientists have known that this is our best hope for at least 40 years.
One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates is that the money and the will can be found for monumental change when our leadership decides to make it happen. We have been told for decades why we can’t quit fossil fuels because it would be too expensive and damage the economy, yet it is clear that massive resources can be mobilized for an emergency when deemed necessary. Climate change is and has been such an emergency since 1981 when the anthropogenic signal emerged from the background noise of the climate (James Hansen et al. 1981).
Abdication of any moral responsibility for climate change by the United States will go down in history as one of the most heinous acts by a single nation. Since early in the 20th century, the US has emitted far more CO2 than any other country. According to a report in Nature in September 2019, the US is responsible for 25 percent of the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere. Collectively, the other more than 190 nations are responsible for the remainder with China being the largest single nation contributor at 13 percent. A significant amount of China’s emissions represent manufacturing for export, even after all imports and exports are accounted for across the major industrialized nations.
Rather than lead the world in addressing the climate crisis, the current government of the United States continues to deny the reality of climate change, and when this is shown to be untenable, to sow disinformation, and delay any action to address it. The US Environmental Protection Agency is little more than the Washington office of the major fossil fuel companies. Of the major political parties of the world, the GOP is that one that for the longest staunchly denied the overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality and severity of climate change. The fossil fuel industry in the US has been at war with climate science despite knowing the dangers since the 1970s.
Equally important to ending the use of fossil fuels and managing drawdown is the urgent need to holistically manage ecosystems for maintenance of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Management of ecosystems based on narrow old-school concepts of eradicating alien and invasive species is doomed to failure as ecosystems change within decades, rather than centuries or millennia. It is urgent that we develop modern working definitions of ecosystem form and function based on the true dynamic nature of species vicariance and climate change. How we treat human and non-human climate migrants and the ecosystems we all inhabit will literally determine the fate of humanity.