Why Geoengineering Won’t Fix Climate Change

If you follow the news on climate change, chances are good you’ve run across the idea of “geoengineering” at some point. While the details of different geoengineering schemes vary, the basic idea is the same: through technological feats of an enormous scale, humans might be able to counteract the effects of climate change by intentionally altering the structure of the atmosphere or reflecting large amounts of heat back into space.

On its face it seems like an attractive idea: geoengineering suggests an easy way out of climate change, promising that we don’t have to worry about actually cutting fossil fuel consumption if we can figure out a way to put a giant mirror in orbit around the Earth, or inject enough light-reflecting sulphates into the atmosphere to block out the sun’s heat. Unfortunately, life isn’t that easy. A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests some of the most popular geoengineering schemes would actually do little to reduce the effects of climate change.

According to the study, giant mirrors and atmospheric sulphate injections would do little if anything to slow rising sea levels, unless pursued on a truly massive (and likely unfeasible) scale. To have any real chance of staving off the effects of climate change, it seems geoengineering schemes would need to be paired with drastic cuts in fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions—the solution that’s always been advocated by the world’s leading climate scientists. There’s no way world economies can continue to spew carbon emissions into the atmosphere and expect to avoid the consequences through geoengineering.

Another point overlooked by geoengineering’s proponents is that effects of pumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere go far beyond the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases. Acidification of the oceans, for example, happens because of the interplay between the chemistry of water and the carbon content of the atmosphere. Geoengineering focused only on heat from the sun would do nothing to combat ocean acidification, which promises to wipe out the world’s coral reefs if not curbed very soon. The eventual effects of acidification would extend far beyond coral reefs to every marine ecosystem on the planet. Even if geoengineering could stop the world getting any warmer, pursuing this option while continuing to burn fossil fuels would mean sacrificing the oceans and every economic activity that depends on them.

Finally, an additional objection raised by authors of the recent study is that any geoengineering project would require constant vigilance to keep it in place, and would need to be continually expanded as countries put more and more carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Imagine the world’s biggest mirror circling the globe in outer space—but every few years it has to be made still bigger, to reflect even more heat as global warming intensifies. If such a scheme proved impossible to keep up at any point in the future, the planet would immediately be slammed with heat, reverting the condition it would be in absent geoengineering.

In the end, geoengineering is not a viable solution to the crisis of climate change. In fact it’s a dangerous distraction from measures that might actually do some good: mainly drastic cuts in fossil fuel consumption. The idea of geoengineering may seem attractive to those who intent on finding technical solutions to climate change—but the energy of innovators would be much better spent pursuing new developments in renewable energy and efficiency. It’s time to accept geoengineering for what it is: a mostly non-starter idea that offers little real hope of avoiding climate change.

Photo credit: NASA

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.