Despite the promises of technological fixes and the power of the burgeoning technocracy, geoengineering cannot solve all problems associated with the climate crisis. For example, the fast and cheap SRM method of geoengineering will do nothing to stop the crisis of ocean acidification. As SRM does nothing to stop GHG emissions “permanent chemical changes” to the ocean’s composition will be allowed to occur (Edney and Symons, 2014: 313). Indeed the addition of sulphate particles in the atmosphere will only contribute to acidification and increased occurrences of acid rain (Ming et al., 2014: 826). To slow down and prevent ocean acidification “immediate and ambitious action to reduce CO2 emissions is the most reliable strategy” (Mathesius et al., 2015: 1110), although it is a sad truth that implementing CDR geoengineering to boost these efforts would not prevent the “substantial legacy in the marine environment” left by human activity (1107).
Additionally the use of SRM geoengineering would affect solar power systems on the ground. The use of “cloud and aerosol modifications” would have an adverse effect on light diffusion thereby reducing the effectiveness of photovoltaic systems, as well as affecting crop productivity (Cho, 2012; Preston, 2013: 31). In fact some geoengineering techniques, including CDR, would require so large a scale to be effective that they would generate “their own environmental effects” by dint of existing (Ibid). And as mentioned earlier, the need for future generations to “stick with the program” of geoengineering for centuries (Burns, 2011) will produce massive burdens on already weakened infrastructure (e.g. Lehmann, 2014; CCC, 2014; Harvey, 2014), or else risk a massive rapid increase in temperature (Jackson and Salzman (2010) use the “analogy of a dim cloud passing, exposing the Earth to full sunlight” (72)).
For the purposes of objectivity it has to be admitted that there are “benign” forms of geoengineering available – although viewing geoengineering as simply “the largest restoration project of them all” is too naive (Preston, 2012: 195). For example, CDR techniques that do not compete for land and mimic natural processes may be acceptable as well as inexpensive (Smith et al., 2015: 7). The research of Becker et al (2013) found that the large scale cultivation of Jatropha curcas (a semi-evergreen plant common in tropical regions) in hot and dry coastal areas around the world “could capture 17–25 t of carbon dioxide per hectare per year from the atmosphere” (237), making use of only marginal land in the process. Compared to more expensive or “technical” geoengineering projects, appropriate afforestation “is the most efficient and environmentally safe approach for climate change mitigation” as “vegetation has played a key role in the global carbon cycle for millions of years” (EGU, 2013).
However, we are faced with the very real danger that issues of “locked-in” warming due to the inertia of the climate system will render these discussions moot, in that to stave off climate apocalypse we would have no choice but to deploy geoengineering technologies.
The unavoidable changes in the climate set to happen are sometimes known as our (1) climate change “commitment” (Stover, 2015). As “the impacts of past human activities will be felt far into the future” the atmospheric levels of GHGs will take several centuries to slowly fall to pre-industrial concentrations. As the IPCC forebodingly warned, “a large fraction of climate change is largely irreversible on human time scales” (Collins et al., 2013: 1033). Oceanic warming and corresponding sea level rise is now “unstoppable” (Goldenberg, 2015) and the threat of additional GHG emissions released from warming permafrost will make “climate change happen faster than we would expect on the basis of projected emissions” (Schuur et al., 2015: 171). The World Bank recently warned that
“There is growing evidence that warming close to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is locked-in to the Earth’s atmospheric system due to past and predicted emissions of greenhouse gases, and climate change impacts such as extreme heat events may now be unavoidable.” (2014: xiii)
The inadequacy of climate negotiations, manipulated as they are by nationalist and capitalist interests, are responsible for these future impacts. The COP 15 proposals in Copenhagen, 2009, for example, though never adopted, would have still “resulted in a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compared to today by the end of the century” (Leinen, 2011: 1) with a corresponding global temperature increase of several degrees Celsius (Rahmstorf, 2008; Lindsey, 2014; Connor, 2015).
These are not hopeful portents. As a scientist working on the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project in the UK said:
“Full scale deployment of climate engineering technologies will be the clearest indication that we have failed in our role as planetary stewards, but there is a point at which not deploying some technologies would be unethical.” (University of Leeds, 2014)
On a similar note Jackson and Salzman (2010) admit that
“our climate is already changing, and we need to explore at least some kinds of carbon-removal technologies, because energy efficiency and renewables cannot take CO2 out of the air once it’s there.” (76)
Have we reached a point where we have no choice but to pursue geoengineering options? If so, how would we want them shaped, controlled, and implemented?
Part Nine coming soon
(1) Of course, “our” climate change commitment should by no means imply that the responsibility of climate change rests equally on the shoulders of every member of the human race. To quote Bookchin (2005):
“One can no longer speak of “humanity” the way one can speak of species of carnivores or herbivores – that is, as groups of fairly uniform biological beings whose individuals are essentially alike. To use such ecumenical words as humanity, we, people, and the like in a purely biologistic sense when we discuss social affairs is grossly misleading. Although human beings are certainly mammals no less than bears, wolves, or coyotes, to ignore the hierarchical and class divisions that second nature has produced in their midst is to create the illusion of a commonality that humanity has by no means achieved. This ecumenical view of the human species places young people and old, women and men, poor and rich, exploited and exploiters, people of color and whites all on a par that stands completely at odds with social reality. Everyone, in turn, despite the different burdens he or she is obliged to bear, is given the same responsibility for the ills of our planet. Be they starving Ethiopian children or corporate barons, all people are held to be equally culpable in producing present ecological problems. Ecological problems, in effect, are de-socialized and restated in genetic, psychological, personal, and purely subjective terms so that they no longer have political or economic content.” (33)
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