Sunday, January 16, 2011

Pathfinders: Engineering the Earth (2011)

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

A new theme has recently emerged in the debate on climate change – geoengineering. This newly coined word – literally, “engineering the Earth” – refers to the prospect of deliberate large-scale human intervention in the climate system to counter global warming. The Royal Society has a useful report online: Geoengineering the Climate (2009); popular accounts include James Fleming’s book Fixing the Sky (2010). Opponents of geoengineering have responded with a counter-report: Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering (ETC Group, 2010).

Geoengineering schemes
Geoengineering schemes are numerous and diverse, but almost all fall into two broad categories.

  • (1) Schemes to remove CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere. Special installations (“scrubbers”) might suck air through a spray of lye – an alkali that binds with the acidic CO2 in the air, producing washing soda. Or the oceans could be “fertilized” with iron particles to foster the growth of CO2-absorbing plankton. Another idea is to use carbon-eating microbes. Planting forests also falls into this category.
  • (2) Schemes to redirect solar radiation – either to reflect it off the Earth’s surface or atmosphere or to deflect it away from the Earth altogether. These schemes are of three types:
  • (2a) Reflection from the surface. The albedo (reflectivity) of the Earth’s surface would be enhanced by such means as painting roofs and roads white, genetically engineering crops and grasses with more reflective foliage, and covering deserts with reflective polyethylene-aluminium sheeting.
  • (2b) Reflection from the atmosphere. One scheme of this type is “cloud bleaching”, in which an armada of robot ships equipped with giant fans plough the seas and propel water aloft to make clouds more reflective. Another popular scheme has spaceplanes continuously injecting aerosols, probably masses of tiny sulphate particles, into the stratosphere. This would mimic the dimming and cooling effect of large volcanic eruptions.
  • (2c) Deflection away from Earth. Light-scattering material – say, aluminium threads or small disks – would be placed in Earth orbit or further out toward the Sun, shielding the Earth from part of the solar radiation. Another idea is to use locally available glass to build a huge mirror on the Moon.

  • These schemes vary widely in terms of likely effectiveness, lead time, risks and costs. Many would counter global warming but create or exacerbate other serious environmental problems. Aerosols may harm the ozone layer and further disrupt the monsoon cycle – also a likely effect of covering deserts or bleaching clouds. Where would all that CO2 removed from the atmosphere go? Stored underground, it would be bound to leak; dumped in the oceans, it would soon turn them into a vast lifeless acid bath. And what if a space-based system to deflect solar radiation suddenly broke down for unknown technical reasons?

    Politics of geoengineering
    The most active promoters of geoengineering are corporate-funded American think-tanks. These are the same think tanks that churn out propaganda denying that global warming exists! But the contradiction is only apparent. While logically inconsistent, both these positions make it possible to argue that there is no need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby safeguarding the immediate profit interests of the corporate sponsors.

    Largely in reaction to such exploitation of the theme, some environmentalists reject geoengineering altogether, rightly arguing that technological fixes cannot solve what is at root a social problem. The Geopiracy report quotes Albert Einstein as saying: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

    Nevertheless, scientists make a cogent case when they argue that it is necessary to combine sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions with carefully selected geoengineering measures. Global warming has been even more rapid in recent years than predicted by the most alarming past projections. The process now has such powerful momentum that even if emissions were to cease completely and immediately – a hypothetical achievement beyond the capacity even of world socialism, supposing it magically conjured into being – geoengineering might turn out to be the only way to avert or at least minimise the catastrophes in store for us.

    Cheap, quick and scary
    The twin priorities of a socialist world community, if it existed, might have to be to move as quickly as possible to a technological structure with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions and to embark on a diverse and environmentally acceptable geoengineering program, if indeed such a programme could ever be found. Such a programme might comprise various Earth- and space-based elements as insurance against particular elements proving less feasible or effective than expected.

    Assuming the continued existence of capitalism, the crucial criteria in selecting schemes for implementation, whether at the national or the international level, will be financial cost and lead time. Capitalists always hate spending more than they absolutely have to, even if it is for the purpose of saving the planet. A short lead time is essential because they will delay even that minimal expenditure until forced to respond to serious threats to the stable functioning of their system – the inundation of London and New York, perhaps. But then they will demand quick results.

    Indeed, some analysts have already guessed what this (relatively) cheap and quick fix is likely to be – the “doping” of the stratosphere with sulphate aerosols. Unfortunately, this scheme is also one of the scariest. Besides the threats to ozone and the monsoon cycle, the filtering of sunlight will have a homogenizing impact on the regional and seasonal climatic pattern. Writers speculate about the psychological impact of the day sky never being blue, only a dull greyish white – although by way of compensation we are promised redder sunsets.