With global warming implicated in current droughts, storms, impending extinctions, sea level rise, and other harbingers of climate change, some experts are looking past the debate for placing the blame on humanity and questioning whether technological solutions could improve or injure humanity and the ecosystem which protects us. With geoengineering, the manipulation of the planet’s environment on a large scale, scientists are trying to innovate on nature for the sake of human survival, but could these technologies actually do more harm than good?

What is changing?

Geoengineering has been around for decades with various types of projects such as pumping the oceans with iron to boost algae blooms for storing CO2, seeding the clouds with sea salt to reflect the sun’s radiation, or launching reflective satellites—sun-shields—to cover the Earth and block the sun’s rays. Each geoengineering technique requires great investment especially considering their scale, but each also has its own potential side effects which could be detrimental to other areas of the environment. If a large scale geoengineering experiment went awry, it could systemically affect the whole of the environment and potentially doom humanity to deal with drastic consequences. Therefore many researchers either dismissed geoengineering as snake oil or condemned it as unethical, but by 2009 geoengineering reached a more mainstream level of debate and inquiry as the Royal Society and other highly respected organizations published reports detailing geoengineering as a possible necessity.

In the latest experiment and perhaps most important thus far, two Harvard engineers will spray hundreds of kilograms of particles into the stratosphere over New Mexico to measure the impacts on ozone chemistry and test ways to make sulphate aerosols the appropriate size to effectively block the sun’s rays. The technique they are experimenting with is based on nature by mimicking the way sulfur emitted from volcanoes during eruptions reflects the sun’s radiation and reduces Earth temperatures. The researchers admit this geoengineering technique could further deplete the ozone layer and disrupt rainfall in the tropics. Such implications then could also threaten the food supply of millions and aggravate international relations even to the brink of war. However, as one of the most affordable and fastest acting geoengineering solutions, it has consequently been suggested as a viable last resort if climate change follows the most severe scenarios.

Why is this important?

While the controversy and environmental, health, and safety (EHS) concerns surrounding geoengineering persist, a growing number of techno-optimists are gaining traction like Stewart Brand who says humanity must act as gods wielding technology for the sake of the planet especially in light of the impending global challenges and the inaction of nations. Many of these optimists say that geoengineering alone will not be enough without corresponding emissions cuts or sequestration, and many climatologists say the Earth is nearing or already past the tipping point beyond which emissions cuts alone will not suffice. Although researchers say effective emission reduction programs could slow polar ice melt, nothing will stop the sea level rise, and inclement weather is expected to continue or even worsen as climate change ramps up affecting food, water, and energy supply. Besides agreeing on appropriate ways to reduce emissions, global leaders soon may be forced to decide if the benefits and the costs of geoengineering are worth the risk.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis Draeger, a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow, is a global citizen currently based in New Zealand. After finishing his master’s in Futures Studies at University of Houston, his foresight consulting portfolio has grown to include work with SMEs, government agencies, and global corporations while partnering with Shaping Tomorrow, Research for Tomorrow Today and Next Corporation. He now heads up Aiglatson Foresight Research.