Geoengineering the Planet

October 9, 2013

Brit Trogen

To many people, geoengineering is still a relatively unknown concept. It's, like, engineering? Something to do with the earth, maybe? In North America, geoengineering has yet to achieve the wide recognition of, say, biotechnology. But for a select group of researchers, geoengineering may represent the greatest hope for the future of our planet from a technological perspective.



Geoengineering is, in fact, almost nothing like what the name implies. The simplest definition is perhaps "largescale climate modification," but even that fails to encompass the variety of strategies and technologies included under the geoengineering umbrella.


Dozens of approaches are, if not entirely feasable, still pretty fascinating in theory. On the simpler side are things like just painting the roofs of every building on earth white, as a light-colored surface area would reflect more heat from the planet's surface. There's also the strategy (recently employed by a rogue businessman) of dumping iron into the oceans to encourage algal blooms, which, in turn, would capture CO2 from the atmosphere. 



But there are also more extreme ideas. We could, for example, throw an enormous mirror up in space, sort of like outfitting the earth with a giant pair of sunglasses. Or, using another dubious technological favorite, employ cloud seeding over the oceans as a method of increasing the earth's reflectivity. The list goes on, with some options even gaining credibility lately due to the most recent climate report of the IPCC.


There are, however, a number of technical and ethical issues to be raised by even the concept of technological tampering with the climate. For example, who would get to control it? (Canadians and Russians might, for example, prefer an ever-so-slightly warmer planet than the citizens of Ecuador.) Should the technologies be patentable? And who on earth would be held responsible if something went wrong? Assuming, of course, that we haven't destroyed the only habitable planet in the solar system in the process of trying to save it.


It's easy to get over-excited at the prospect of solving climate change using technology. But for now, geoengineering is still pretty much a pipe dream when it comes to feasable climate strategies. By far, our best bet (both economically and risk-wise) is simply to slow climate change now before it spirals out of control. Which means the same old mantra: reducing our carbon emissions. Not quite as flashy as a space-mirror, but it's undoubtedly a much safer strategy overall. 



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