Saviour or Science Fiction?

In his lecture: Get Real about Geo-Engineering speaker Nigel Roulet posed the question: what level of climate change are we willing to accept, and what feasible mitigation options exist for curbing these changes? He discussed an array of potential geo-engineering solutions that ranged from carbon capture and storage to pumping aerosols into the atmosphere to increase albedo and reduce incoming solar radiation. By no means lacking in imagination, such proposed schemes deserve some consideration, however they should be approached critically and with caution.

As the public becomes increasingly aware of the potential impacts of climate change, a number of geo-engineering designs have emerged as prospective methods for mitigating climate change. Scientists and economists, like Nicolas Stern, have predicted that costs of climate change will be high, increasing with the degree of climate change. These costs include both environmental and economic costs as well as consequences for human health and potential loss of life. Recent attempts to achieve a global policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been halfhearted and unsuccessful. The attitude of world leaders going into the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month is disconcerting, indicating there may be little progress made on the nearly defunct Kyoto Protocol. As efforts to reduce our impact on the environment falter, many member of our society turn to their blind faith in technology to lead to a solution; figuring that if technology has lead us to this hole, it can certainly dig us out again. Moreover, to some individuals, such technological endeavors as a massive sunshade orbiting the earth are simply money-making schemes to exploit a budding market.

But before we jump on board, we must take into consideration the risks and long-term effectiveness of these high-tech proposals. The risks associated with solving a problem of massive perturbation to the global climate system by massively perturbing the global climate system, are simply too large. Due to the sheer scale of some of the more drastic climate change remedies, the effects on other elements or processes in the earth system are unknown. It must be noted, however, that not all geo-engineering strategies for dealing with climate change are risky. In fact, some proposed ideas, such as painting roofs white to reflect solar radiation, or reforestation and afforestation activities to expand global carbon sinks are ecologically benign, if not beneficial, but have a relatively low impact in terms of mitigating climate change. The highly effective mitigation proposals are surrounded by the greatest amount of uncertainty, and decades worth of research are required before implementation can be considered. In addition to retarding progress on preventative policy, the geo-engineering solutions offer a short-term fix to the climate problem. These proposals fail to address mass consumption patterns, which are the underlying drivers of climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. If technological solutions are successful at diminishing the dangerous impacts of climate change with no changes to human behaviour, the crisis will manifest itself in some other form of environmental stress. If action continues to be delayed, perhaps we will reach a point when the impacts of climate change become a reality, and in such desperation, turn to technology for a quick fix. But until then, we continue to deliberate on the subject of climate change and the geo-engineering designs remain, for now, in the realm of science fiction.

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