Uncertainty Wednesday: Geo-engineering Edition


This post is by Continuations by Albert Wenger from Continuations by Albert Wenger


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I have written fairly extensively here on Continuations about climate change, including several times as part of Uncertainty Wednesday. I have also previously stated my support for geo-engineering research as far back as 2009 and again more recently in 2016. A common objection to geo-engineering is that the earth is a complex highly non-linear system. So the argument goes, anything we might do will likely be a cure that’s worse than the disease.

There are two flaws with this argument. First, we are already engaged in geo-engineering on a global scale. That’s exactly what our massive industrial emissions of CO2 are. So to argue that we should not geo-engineer is to really say we should not engage in “additional geo-engineering” (it really doesn’t matter that our initial “experiment” was inadvertent, we are fully engaged in it nonetheless).

The second flaw with the argument is that the most interesting geo-engineering proposals all

on existing natural processes. This is true for both the dispersal of aerosols to reduce the amount of solar radiation entering the atmosphere and for iron fertilization to spur the growth of phytoplankton as a way to turn atmospheric CO2 into oxygen. Both of these processes have occurred naturally many times in the past as a result of volcanic eruptions.

Now does that mean we know exactly what will happen if we recreate eruption conditions? No, because human made alternatives will be slightly different. But that is why it is all the more important to run experiments both in labs and in situ and observe what happens so that we can come as close as possible to the naturally occurring conditions. We have already donated some money to lab research on stratospheric aerosols and I would be excited to do the same for ocean fertilization.

If you don’t think this is urgent, I want to leave you with two chart that show what is happening to emissions growth:

And here is a breakdown by country

So while it is great that there has been some progress made with the recent UN agreement in Poland we need to be prepared that it is too little too late and that we will need geo-engineering instead.