I was lucky enough to attend a lecture Friday afternoon at Columbia University on the topic of geoengineering. Speaking on the issue were Eli Kintisch, author of Hack the Planet — Science’s Best Hope — or Worst Nightmare — for Averting Climate Catastrophe and Scott Barrett, Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.
Geoengineering, if you are unaware, is the the term used to describe methods, or proposed methods, to deliberately alter the Earth’s climate to counteract the effect of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions. It has become a much-debated topic among scientists, environmentalists and politicians. The fact that 2009 marked the end of the warmest 10 years ever measured, only gives more credibility to global warming as a serious, worldwide problem. It also places a focus on geoengineering.
Eli Kintisch talked about the different types of potential geoengineering methods:
- Carbon removal: this method calls for the mixing of iron into the ocean to encourage algae growth. As algae blooms, dies or is eaten, it uses up carbon dioxide.
- Air capture machines: just like the name says, these enormous machines would capture air inside cylinders lined with a special substance to absorb carbon dioxide.
- Aerosol spraying: this method entails the spraying of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface.
Of course, there are several risks that could arise from such scientific experiments.
Kintisch touched on a few, including:
- Side effects (potentially disastrous ones)
- The difficulty of connecting experiments to effects
- Assigning blame
- Could alienate the public
- Could lead to a ban
But, as Scott Barrett stated, “the whole point of geoengineering is to reduce risk, but these things we would also carry risk. We’re in a world, unfortunately, where there is always a risk/risk tradeoff.”
Barrett also stressed that the key issue in geoengineering is governance — the question of who gets to decide if and when geoengineering should be tried. Barrett also voiced his concerns over the lack of a geoengineering protocol, reiterating that, currently, there are no rules regarding any aspect of these potential experiments, or the idea of geoengineering in general.
Clearly, there is much to be done.
But if full-scale geoengineering is too drastic or unfeasible to pull off, there are some other tech-related solutions that could help mitigate some of the world’s more dire problems.