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 Should we attempt to engineer the earths' climate?

Geo-engineering techniques have often been dismissed as pure science fiction, but more recently those previously against the idea of geo-engineering seem prepared to cautiously consider it as part of the solution.

Examples range from using orbital mirrors to bounce sunlight back into space, fertilising the world's oceans with iron to increase their absorption of carbon and painting the roofs of buildings white to increase solar reflection (similar to polar ice caps).

Why is geo-engineering being discussed now?

Since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the planned curbing of greenhouse gases has been less successful than first hoped.

The difficulty of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is getting harder to ignore and previously dismissed solutions are being quietly discussed as possible options.

Many environmentalists maintain that the solution is to continue to push the message of carbon reduction. Currently the discussion on geo-engineering is mainly at an academic level and has not risen up the political and diplomatic agenda. However, countries that see it a more cost effective way of dealing with the issue of climate change could increasingly draw attention to the idea and encourage a public debate.

Reluctance to discuss geo-engineering

as pessimism grows over global warming, so does hope that science and technology will invent a dramatic response

— Climate Change: The Quick Fix? BBC Radio 4

There has been is a reluctance to seriously discuss the possibility of geo-engineering as a possible solution to global warming. Sceptics not only question the science but warn of the signal that serious geo-engineering research may send to the international community.

Robin Webster, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, argues that the political focus must not be taken off the elimination of carbon emissions at the source, changes to the economy, increases in energy efficiency and the development and growth of renewable sources of energy.

There is a risk that serious consideration of these solutions could give the impression that the need to reduce carbon emissions is not as important as thought and that global warming has a possible technical solution.

The dilemma is that geo-engineering might be needed as a final option policy incase of unexpectedly rapid climate change. However, if serious consideration is given to researching geo-engineering projects, the pressure might be taken off governments to tackle the source of climate change and continue the decarbonisation of society.

Politics and Economics of Climate Change

David Victor, Professor of Law and Director at Stanford University argues that geo-engineering may "turn the politics and economics of climate change on its head".

In the BBC Radio 4 programme, he explained that controlling greenhouse gas emissions is currently done through treaties and international agreements which encouraging countries to cooperate and make a contribution to the global effort.

The prospect of geo-engineering in the future could present the reverse problem, whereby countries would need to be discouraged from carrying out a project on their own.

Julian Morris, International Policy Network, states that international treaties could be extended to attempt to deter individual countries from carrying out geo-engineering projects on their own, but would be near impossible to stop them.

What are the risks of geo-engineering? Unforeseen consequences...

Extensive tests need to be carried out to see the global consequences of such geo-engineering projects, however this is virtually impossible. Controlled geo-engineering experiments are unable to be carried out and reversing geo-engineering projects that went wrong would be extremely difficult and costly.

that's where the fear might be, if you start thinking you know we can press one techno fix button and that's going to fix everything

— Robin Webster, Climate Change: The Quick Fix? BBC Radio 4

One solution identified would be to monitor how the atmosphere responds to volcanic eruptions, a process of nature that is similar to some proposed geo-engineering csolutions. Volcanic eruptions are known to project large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, which have been recognised as having a cooling effect on the globe.

The risks of replicating such a process could result in acid rain and damage to the ozone layer, and a debate is yet to be had as to whether this is an acceptable consequence to halting global warming of over 3 degrees.

Sir David King, former British government chief science advisor, suggests 3 main possibilities for geo-engineering:

1 Remove CO2 from oceans - precipitate C02 out of the oceans and into rock formations which would store the C02
2 Remove CO2 out of the atmosphere - building of fake trees - look up on BBC
3 Reflect sunlight away from the earth’s surface 

There are no current proposals that have clear validity at the moment, but I think we are faced with such an enormous problem that we need to do all the research we can to see if there are any geo-engineering proposals that work through to the marketplace

— Sir David King, Climate Change: The Quick Fix, BBC Radio 4

Sir David believes none of these are currently viable options, however he believes that  funding should be available to enable further research but is aware of the dangers of the unintended consequences of such projects.

However unexpected environmental damage can be seen in race for sources of low carbon energy sources:
• Wind farms – could pose a risk to birds populations
• Biofuels – increased production can result in forest destruction and the creation of more greenhouse gas emissions
• Wave power – could pose a threat to fish populations
• Nuclear power – creates hazardous waste and their disposal poses a real danger to the environment

The challenge will be to balance one form of environmental risk against another; deciding whether the consequences of geo-engineering projects outweigh the threat that continued global warming poses.

Geo-engineering raises the question of whether we should actively attempt to engineer the world’s climate or instead change our fossil fuel dependence and progress towards a post fossil fuel society.

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