Playing God with Earth’s thermostat

In an attempt to propel the discussion from “is it or isn’t it happening” to “what should we do about it”, I want to bring up the topic of geo-engineering. This is essentially large-scale manipulation of Earth’s climate by us. It comes in many flavours from capturing CO2 for storage deep beneath the sea to developing antacids for our oceans.

But there’s one solution that I want to talk about here because it’s cheap, fast and easy. It involves sending an aeroplane up into the stratosphere where it would spray sulphate particles about as a means to increase Earth’s albedo, reflect the sun and keep us cool. Rather like wearing a white hat on a sunny day.

This is essentially what happens when volcanoes erupt. They send sulphur soaring into the atmosphere and in the case of the Mount Pinatubo eruption, decreased Earth’s temperature by 1°C for over a  year. This volcano-inspired geo-engineering solution is therefore just temporary, but fast-acting.

There are some downsides though. These sulphate particles may further damage the ozone layer and cause acid rain. There is also the possibility that they will disrupt rainfall patterns in the tropics and subtropics, putting the crops of billions of people at risk.

This solution and its problems leads to some interesting ethical questions. Like the whole climate change problem, the benefits of acting or not-acting are different depending on where you live and in what time you live. Doing nothing about climate change – business as usual – benefits people living today but will negatively affect people of the future. Taking action to combat climate change will be a cost for people living today but a benefit for the people of the future.

Suppose one country would benefit from spraying sulphate particles – Australia – while another country would not benefit at all and possibly suffer through ozone depletion – New Zealand. Whose interests take preference here? If Australia chose to send a plane up into the atmosphere for the purposes of sulphate injection, would New Zealand have a legitimate cause for grievance? No-one can really stop Australia from doing this if they decide it is in their best interest.

But is this problem very different from the question of whether to take action on climate change where say, no action means New Zealand benefits but Australia suffers. In one case we are doing something active – spraying sulphates – while in the other, we are doing nothing – business as usual.

What I’m trying to ask here is whether the ethical question is more difficult when there is some non-passive action involved. Is Australia any more at fault for doing something active in the first scenario than New Zealand is for doing nothing in the second?

Anyway, that’s about all I’ve got for now. Sorry if none of this makes sense. We’re heading off and away for a short holiday to a secret location which I’m not going to disclose. But I will be sure to post photos of this place when we get there.

14 thoughts on “Playing God with Earth’s thermostat

  1. Rachel — You’ve asked some very interesting questions. I think it’s definitely unethical and immoral to do nothing about climate change. However, I have reservations about taking action that has definite and quite horrendous downsides for some but not for others. Depleting the ozone layer is a real downside as is acid rain. I was getting hopeful when you first mentioned sulphate spraying. I feel all let down now. 😦

    1. Sorry to disappoint you, Bronwyn. I don’t doubt that geoengineering will play a big part in our future. I think we will find a way around the problem of acid rain and ozone destruction. But geoengineering is not meant to replace action on climate change. I think we need to tackle the problem from all angles.

  2. Rachel,
    The Harvard article is interesting but the case of stratospheric aerosol injection has been largely rejected as science fiction by scientific organisations including The Royal Society, and the US National Academy of Sciences.Ronald Prinn ,a professor of atmospheric sciences at MIT explains the basic problem (which Keith acknowledges in the article),
    “If we lower levels of sunlight,we are unsure of the exact response of the climate system to doing that, for the same reason that we don’t know exactly how the climate will respond to a particular level of greenhouse gases.That’s the big issue.How can you engineer a system you don’t fully understand.?”
    Lord Rees ,President of the Royal Society commented in a debate before the UK Parliament in 2010, ” Such techno fixes have an undoubted allure for some people, but our recent Royal Society report emphasised that geo-engineering could have unintended consequences, as well as being plainly politically problematic.”
    In 1992 the US National Academy of Sciences Commitee assessing eco-engineering strategies concluded “Engineering countermeasures need to be evaluated but should not be implemented without broad understanding of the direct effects and the potential side effects,the ethical issues ,and the risks.”
    Today, more than 20 years later,we still lack this broad understanding.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by the words science fiction. They seem to imply that this is something that can’t be done but it can and is apparently very easy to do. But I agree that there is a very big hole in our understanding of what might happen and what the consequences are. I think David Keith is arguing that we need to start gathering this data now because we may need it in the future.

      1. Rachel,
        Thanks.I should mention that my views on geo-engineering ,particularly the injection of particles into the stratosphere are not original and are strongly influenced by reading on my kindle “The Climate Fix” by Roger Pielke Jr.
        Chapter 5 is “Technological Fixes and Backstops,”
        In a section therein ,he examines D.Sarewitz and R. Nelson’s paper ,”Three Rules for Technological Fixes “,Nature 456 (2008):871-882.
        He concludes that this form of geo-engineering fails all three Rules.He then gives the several quotes I set out ,underlining the likelihood of unintended consequences.The cost / benefit analysis in the literature is terribly inconclusive, indeed conflicting.
        Another section in Chapter 5 is ” Can (or should we) play God with the climate system?”. It covers your debate in detail.The discussion is too lengthy to canvass here but covers every aspect of the issue.
        The “science fiction “reference came from his conclusion,
        “Climate management deserves to stay on the pages of science fiction novels,and to remain the subject of speculative research.However it offers no prospect for addressing the consequences of accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.We’ll have to look elsewhere.”
        Pielke might be wrong.
        Richard Branson has offered $25 million for such a technological breakthrough.He wants to keep flying planes and driving cars!
        Pielke’s following section is on Carbon Remediation (he views it more optimistically),entitled “What about just cleaning up our mess?” He is keen on R & D.and believes funds for research should be greatly increased.

      2. Sounds interesting thanks, Doug. I haven’t read much about it other than to watch a talk by Keith on TED. He was certainly very enthusiastic. I am definitely in favour of lots of R&D in this field because I think that ultimately we need to get back to 350ppm.

  3. Since you’re in France, I’ll leave you with the words of French scientist François-Marie Bréon, one of the Lead Authors of the IPCC’s AR5:-
    “My biggest error on the climatic plan was to participate in the creation of four children whom it is now necessary to feed, with a meat component, and to warm (not much, but a little all the same.”.
    There you have the solution – population control!
    Is it unethical and immoral for a couple to have more than one or two children?

  4. This kind of geoengineering is not science fiction, but I agree with Douglas’s reference to the fact that the larger problem is that we don’t really know what will happen. We have some idea what the result will be, but the possibility of unintended (maybe even unimaginable) consequences of sulphate injection, for example, drive up the risk associated with trying it.

    You might be interested to read about a rogue instance of geoengineering that was reported last year. A businessman dumped 100 tons of iron into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Canada. The project was economically motivated: iron leads plankton to bloom which fish feed on; by dumping the iron, the company was hoping to increase the salmon population. The experiment is of interest to climate because plankton absorb CO2, theoretically sequestering it in the bottom of the ocean when the plankton die and float to the ocean floor.

    Interestingly, some of the strongest criticism besides the fact that this businessman and the company he worked for were toying with nature, was the fact that they didn’t alert scientists about what they were planning to do. In the end, it seems like not much scientific information was gained because the experiment wasn’t controlled enough. But as you mentioned in your post, this is the kind of thing that could happen if one company or even country felt that they had something to gain from trying to alter their local environment. And it could have significant unforeseen consequences for the rest of the world.

    Here’s an article that discusses the incident: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/science/earth/iron-dumping-experiment-in-pacific-alarms-marine-experts.html?_r=0

  5. Hi Gail,

    Yes, I’d forgotten about the incident of iron dumping but can remember reading about it at the time. I wonder whether there was any impact on the salmon population?

    It does seem to me that our lack of data about the risks of geoengineering means we should be doing something to remedy this. I think this is essentially what Keith is arguing for: perform the experiments now and gather some data.

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