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Geo-engineering: Combating climate change with technology

Climate change will happen, it is an inevitable consequence of humanity’s addition to fossil fuels. To combat climate change, humanity must quit its filthy habit. Unfortunately quitting takes time.  Geo-engineering makes this transition more comfortable. But humanity must be wary, geo-engineering is also addictive.  

An immediate and total global reduction in carbon emissions is the most effective way to counter the effects of climate change.  The reality is that is unlikely to happen. If all the goals of the 2010 Copenhagen accord are met (a highly unlikely turn of events) the International Energy Agency still predicts the world will warm by 3.5˚C by 2100.  For comparison the difference in average global temperature from the last ice age to the pre-industrial age was 6˚C.

Climate change will be uncomfortable for humanity.  Droughts, heat waves, flooding, more intense storms, and the migration and conflict these changes cause will be painful.  Enter geo-engineering.

Geo-engineering is defined as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.”  There are two main categories in this practice.  One is to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and the other is to reflect sunlight that would otherwise heat the globe back into space.

Geo-engineering can ease the pain as humanity slowly weans itself from fossil fuels.  But geo-engineering comes with its downsides.  Therefore these efforts must remain a sideshow, the priority must remain a collective effort to wean humanity from its fossil-fuel addiction.  Geo-engineering can be act as a ‘nicotine-patch,’ making the change more comfortable.

An attempt to remove carbon from the atmosphere goes bad

To date there has only been one geo-engineering action.  In late July of 2012 a rogue duo – the American entrepreneur Russ George and the Haida First Nation private company Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation –  dumped more than 100 metric tonnes of iron into the ocean off the coast of British Columbia.  The Haida Chiefs and Councils have since distanced themselves from the experiment.  Iron can stimulate phytoplankton growth.  The hope was that by dumping iron into the ocean, an increased phytoplankton could both revive of the salmon population and counter climate change by sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.  The hope was  that the iron would stimulate phytoplankton growth because phytoplankton would trap carbon in the ocean, rather than the atmosphere.

Phytoplankton - our little friends under the sea

Phytoplankton – our little friends under the sea

The worldwide scientific community has since condemned the action.  Stimulating mass phytoplankton growth does more harm than good.  By creating a new ecosystem, one inevitably destroys the existing one.  Too much phytoplankton can kill fish and marine mammals.  It can also produce methane-gas – this means is not even certain this process limits overall carbon emissions.  This geo-engineering action was a foolish one, however the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation continues to defend its actions. (www.haidasalmon.net)

Cloud Seeder

A reflecting-sunlight strategy looks more promising 

More promising is the work being done to stop hurricanes from forming.  Hurricanes form when sunlight heats the ocean’s surface, causing evaporation.  As the moist air rises it cools and creates condensation, the newly formed liquid heats the air once again.  Thus this process feeds off itself, creating powerful winds and storms.

Much of the world warm enough for hurricanes to form is covered by clouds (30% or so) which reflects the sunlight and prevents the hurricane-forming process from beginning.  By spraying seawater into the atmosphere, scientists hope to stimulate cloud-forming.  The newly formed clouds would reduce the amount of hurricanes that form, and reduce the intensity of those that do.  This effort could also mitigate global warming as it reflects earth-heating sunlight.  Teams have already used computer-simulators to predict that unmanned solar-powered boats could spray seawater into the atmosphere and successfully limit the intensity of storms (see image).  But this strategy still comes with its downsides, to not interfere with the world’s rainfalls the practice will need to be limited.

What is certain is that as the climate warms, we will see more geo-engineering attempts to cool the earth.  But don’t forget, reducing emissions must remain the ultimate goal. If humanity loses sight of the this goal, we may become collectively addicted to geo-engineering in addition to fossil-fuels.  Oil would then only be a gateway drug.

by Dylan F

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About Dylan Finlay

I studied History and Political Science at the University of Toronto. Since graduating I began writing/blogging.

7 comments on “Geo-engineering: Combating climate change with technology

  1. Jason McNamee
    February 18, 2013

    Dylan,

    I appreciate opinion except when it is presented as fact.

    First, our work is neither rogue (10 years of research, public consultation, public referendum, 7 federal ministries), nor geoengineering (too small): http://www.keith.seas.harvard.edu/papers/37.Keith.2001.Geoengineering.e.pdf , nor has the worldwide scientific community condemned our work http://www.timescolonist.com/opinion/letters/iron-dust-experiment-has-justification-1.9411 .

    Secondly, you are way off on your science. First of all stimulating plankton growth does more good then harm http://www.drtimparsons.ca/Parsons_and_Whitney2012_FR_sockeye.pdf and it does sequester carbon http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v487/n7407/full/nature11229.html?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20120719 .

    The crux of the problem, for which we are trying to find a solution, is this: Phytoplankton has been declining by 1%/year for at least the last 30 years and likely much longer http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7306/abs/nature09268.html . As the base of the food chain declines, so to must the top of the food chain. We don’t yet know all the results of our work as we are still analyzing data and the fisheries impact will not be known for at least 2 years.

    We welcome rationale, balanced, supported discussion.

    Best Regards,

    Jason McNamee, B.Sc.
    Director & Operations Officer
    Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation
    http://www.haidasalmon.net

    jasontmcnamee@gmail.com

    Twitter: Jason McNamee ‏@McNameeJason

  2. Dylan F
    February 20, 2013

    I am not a scientist. All I can do is reference the articles I read to write this piece. I listened to CBC’s science show Quirks and Quarks and read some pieces on the project by CBC. It is true that because of the action Canada won the ‘Dodo Award’ at the UN’s 2012 Conference on Biodiversity. The action is one that has been condemned.

    I invite all readers to make their own opinion on the subject.

  3. Jason McNamee
    February 21, 2013

    But you are writing as a scientist and with the authority and credibility that brings, when in fact you are simply repeating media reports which themselves only present one side of the story.

    Just like the dodo award in your comment. Canada was given the dodo award for several reasons, not just one as you have stated. I like to add website links to back up my statements. http://peopleforestsrights.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/canada-uk-given-dodo-awards-by-civil-society-governments-singled-out-on-geo-engineering-biofuels-and-financing/

    I invite all readers to click on the links I have provided in addition to the media reports listed here. You can also check out our blog: http://www.haidasalmon.net/blog/ and our press kit http://www.haidasalmon.net/current-events/press-releases/press-kit-october-19-2012/ for more information or listen to me discuss our project on the January 24 podcast of this radio show called, appropriately, “think for yourself” http://www.coopradio.org/station/archives/2032

    My Twitter and email accounts can be found in my first comment and I am happy to continue the conversation.

    • Dylan F
      February 21, 2013

      As a blog post my article simply reflects my opinion on the matter. As I said before I encourage any reader who is interested in the matter to do their own research and form their own opinion.

  4. Shaun
    May 2, 2013

    I want to to thank you for this great read!! I certainly loved every bit of it.
    I have got you book marked to look at new things you post…

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    August 27, 2014

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2013 by in Sunday Feature and tagged , , , , .

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