Tynan Hewes



May 16, 2018

Geoengineering: The Boomerang Solution to Climate Change



         Global climate change is one of the greatest issues to ever face humanity. Studies have found that global temperatures have been rising at an average rate of 0.17°C  per decade since 1970, largely due to carbon dioxide emissions (Dahlman, 2017). In a paper published by the IPCC, it was found that increasing temperatures have resulted in a loss of biodiversity, and have caused large-scale extinctions, especially among endemic species (IPCC, 2002).  Researchers also found that climate changes are resulting in droughts, which negatively affect agricultural industries, namely in the southwest United States (NASA, 2018). Fortunately, politicians are taking action to combat climate change through means such as renewable energy and environmental laws (Corner and Pidgeon, 2014). However, findings show that despite attempts to reduce carbon dioxide, we are still producing 25% more carbon dioxide than the predicted safe amount to avoid more extreme environmental damages (Khan, 2016). Clearly, more action needs to be taken to combat climate change. One proposed solution to the environmental crisis is geoengineering, a practice that uses technology to control the climate, which in turn allows humans to minimize or reverse climate change. This paper will specifically investigate aerosol loading, a subset of geoengineering; therefore, this paper will use the terms geoengineering and aerosol loading synonymously. Many proponents argue that geoengineering will be the solution to climate change; however, there are severe potential repercussions to engineering nature, including environmental degradation, negative economic consequences, and the moral hazard.  

         In order to understand the dangers of geoengineering, we must first understand what it is. Experts, like Alan Robock, explain that the idea behind aerosol loading is firing sulfates, which are a specific type of aerosol, into the atmosphere (Robock, et al., 2009). According to NASA, aerosols are highly reflective particles, produced from the burning of coal and oil (NASA, 2017). Experts in the field of geoengineering propose to use cannons and airplanes to fire sulfates into the atmosphere to increase earth’s albedo (Robock et al., 2009). Sulfates have an extremely high albedo, meaning they are highly reflective, and therefore can prevent the earth from absorbing some of the sun’s energy (NASA, 2017). Geoengineers propose that if they injected sulfates into the atmosphere more energy from the sun would be reflected back into space which would decrease global warming (Robock et al., 2009). Ideally, this would allow humanity to solve the issues of climate change by means of science and technology, rather than such things as reducing carbon dioxide output and consumption of goods. However, controlling the climate is exceptionally challenging, and perhaps impossible, so attempts to do so could have severe economic and environmental consequences (Robock, et al., 2009).


Effects on the Environment

         Aerosol loading is a highly imperfect science and would result in numerous negative environmental effects. The basis of geoengineering is disturbing the natural environment, especially the atmosphere, to prevent global warming. Humanity has already damaged the natural environment through burning fossil fuels and industrializing. Similarly, an alternative disruption to the environment will have the potential to affect the atmosphere and earth as well. While geoengineering does attempt to remedy some environmental issues, it also causes many others.

         One key concern of aerosol loading is that it would cause ozone depletion as a result of the increased number of aerosols entering the atmosphere (Robock et al., 2009). Ozone depletion would result in increased ultraviolet radiation (UVB) reaching the earth’s surface, which causes skin cancer and malignant melanoma development (EPA, 2016). Furthermore, UVB interferes with various other forms of biota by means of hindering plant development and interfering with biogeochemical systems, many of which are involved in natural carbon sequestration. Without this means of carbon sequestration, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere will increase, in turn, increasing the rate of global warming (EPA, 2016). In this case, not only would geoengineering negatively affect the health of humans and wildlife but it, in fact, has the potential for exacerbating the issue it is ultimately trying to stop: increasing global temperatures. Ozone depletion demonstrates the idea that controlling the environment would have severe environmental effects.

         Aerosol loading would also negatively impact renewable energy in the form of sunlight. While the purpose of aerosol loading is to reduce the amount of solar energy from entering the atmosphere to reduce global temperatures, this can also have direct negative effects. The sulfates injected into the atmosphere would cause the sunlight that came in contact with them to scatter and diffuse (Robock, et al., 2009). This would negatively impact solar generators because solar panels require the use of direct sunlight to properly function (Knier, n.d.). Stratospheric aerosols would decrease the amount of direct sunlight by 4 watts per every watt reflected out of the atmosphere (Murphy, 2009). This would be a serious setback against solar power, a growing source of renewable energy (Environmental Science, 2018). Currently, solar power is the fastest growing source of renewable energy, but if aerosols were injected into the atmosphere the future of renewable energy would be at risk (Nyhus, 2018). Geoengineering is designed to address environmental issues; however, by decreasing renewable energy potential, it would impede other attempts to address carbon dioxide emissions. Aerosol loading would cause the loss of a natural resource that provides for sustainable energy. For climate solutions to be effective, not only must they target an environmental problem, but they must also not interfere with current other established solutions.

         Aerosol loading would also increase the amount of acid rain, which would have detrimental effects on the environment. Increasing atmospheric aerosol content would result in more aerosols entering the troposphere, which would cause an increase of sulfuric acid in rain (MIT, 2009). When acid rain falls, it leaches aluminum out of the soil, which can be harmful to an array of plants and animals (EPA, 2017). Furthermore, when the sulfuric acid reaches waterways, it increases the acidity, which is detrimental to many species, especially those who cannot adapt to significant changes in pH, such as snails and clams (EPA, 2017). Acid rain also leaches essential nutrients from the soil, which is taxing on the growth and hardiness of plants, especially those in mountainous regions that lack a thick soil foundation (EPA, 2017). Furthermore, less successful plants would negatively affect the food industry. Already there is a food crisis across the globe, and decreasing the fitness of an array of plant species would limit the amount of food that could be produced across the globe (NASA, 2018). This demonstrates another way that aerosol loading could negatively impact environmental health.

         The science behind geoengineering is untested and unpredictable. Furthermore, it will negatively impact the earth’s environment, which, is, in fact, the thing it is meant to improve. Based on its environmental consequences alone, the implementation of it across the globe should be questioned. Furthermore, if it were ever to be implemented, and if it was decided after the fact that the environmental damages of it were outweighing the benefits, the cost would be immense. Aerosols cannot be removed from the atmosphere once injected, so the negative effects of geoengineering would continue after aerosol loading was terminated (Robock, 2008). Furthermore, if aerosol loading were terminated, there would be a climate shock which would result in global warming accelerating to a rate far greater than it is currently (Robock, 2008). Essentially, there is no going back. Unlike other attempts to combat environmental degradation and climate change, we cannot undo aerosol loading, and therefore the risks are too great.


Economic Consequences and Immediate Impacts of Aerosol Deployment

         The practice of geoengineering could be extremely economically costly and aerosol loading would have immediate environmental consequences, questioning whether it is the most efficient use of funds to target environmental issues (Robock, 2008). While some proponents of geoengineering claim that aerosol loading would be relatively inexpensive, there is evidence to refute this (Robock, et al., 2009). Cost estimates of firing sulfates into the atmosphere are as low as about 2 trillion dollars (Fleming, 2012; BLS, 2018). However, the cost of aerosol loading has not been definitively established, and economic estimates of large-scale governmental projects are almost always too low (Robock, 2008). Furthermore, economic estimates of aerosol loading neither include a monitoring system for the injected sulfates, nor considerations of environmental and industrial damage from albedo modification attempts (National Research Council, 2015). Atmospheric scientist, Jim Fleming, states that firing sulfates into the atmosphere would produce about 2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year (Fleming, 2012). Therefore, aerosol loading would increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to some degree directly after deployment.

         Geoengineering could result in reduced funds towards other attempts to mitigate climate change. According to economist Nicholas Stern, the current annual budget for climate change is only about 9 trillion dollars (Robock, 2008). Aerosol loading would take up a large percentage of this budget, assuming no additional money was given to target climate change. This could result in fewer funds for renewable energy and other carbon dioxide mitigation efforts. This cannot be afforded. Geoengineering is insufficient to protect natural environments, animal habitats, and sustainable food systems, and therefore cannot be counted on entirely to address environmental issues (Fleming, 2012).

         Geoengineering could also result in adverse economic consequences. Astronomers spend billions of dollars on observatories, and aerosol loading would render these stations useless as a result of the permanent pollution that they would cause above the telescopes (Robock, et al., 2009). This would limit future research in the field of astronomy and waste large sums of money that could otherwise be used for scientific advance. Aerosol loading would also necessitate more artificial light be given to plants, due to the decreased direct natural sunlight that would be entering the atmosphere (Robock, 2009). Finally decreased direct sunlight could negatively impact humans, as sunlight provides a source of vitamin D, and serves as an antidepressant. This could result in increased consumption of vitamin D and antidepressants supplements (Robock et al., 2009). Therefore, the potential economic consequences of geoengineering are too high to warrant the use of aerosol loading.


The Moral Hazard

         Geoengineering is positioned and touted as the technology that will solve all environmental issues, and because of this, it would likely decrease environmental action, causing the moral hazard. The moral hazard is the idea that because we are insured to some degree against a particular threat, we do not need to worry about that threat anymore (Lin, 2013). For example, not worrying about crashing your car because you have car insurance would demonstrate the moral hazard. In the case of geoengineering and climate change, insurance would be a metaphor for geoengineering, and car crashes would be a metaphor for climate change and environmental degradation. However, as demonstrated earlier, geoengineering alone cannot address all environmental issues, and will in fact negatively impact the environment in many ways.

         Geoengineering could disincentivize other governmental action to address climate change. Even though many politicians and scientists are aware of the moral hazard, they are still concerned about it with respect to climate change (Corner and Pidgeon, 2014). Environmental policy makers unanimously claim that geoengineering will only be a band-aid solution to climate change, and will not, in fact, address many environmental issues (Corner and Pidgeon, 2014). Despite this, environmental politicians worry that discussing geoengineering and considering its possibilities would distract them from making necessary policies concerning carbon dioxide outputs and other climate issues (Corner and Pidgeon, 2014). Supporting their concerns, studies show that geoengineering efforts and discussions would negatively impact climate legislation (Lin, 2013).  Geoengineering is very appealing to many people, despite the fact that it is a highly flawed solution to climate change. Having blind faith that geoengineering would address all environmental issues is extremely risky and impractical, yet people still support it, proving the existence of the moral hazard of geoengineering.

         The science and practice of geoengineering appear to be an easy solution to climate change to the public due to its psychological appeal of control. Studies in psychology show that having a sense of control over a situation is highly attractive to humans (Lin, 2013).  In a study conducted on random individuals, it was found that many participants thought geoengineering could be an effective solution to climate change. They came to this conclusion despite being informed on the technical difficulties and imperfections of geoengineering. Many of these participants also said that geoengineering would be easy to “switch off,” and that it would be highly “controllable” (Lin, 2013).  Sadly, terminating aerosol loading would not be an easy switch off, and would, in fact, result in accelerated global warming (Robock, 2008). Furthermore, claiming that the climate and climate engineering is controllable is a stretch. The climate is dynamic and unpredictable. Claiming that scientists who have never controlled the climate before will be able to do so is an overstatement of the abilities of these scientists. Nonetheless, people believe that geoengineering will allow humans to control the climate to a greater extent than is realistic.

         Many climate skeptics support geoengineering, likely because it appears an easy way to address climate change (Ellison, 2018). In February 2018, President Trump signed a budget to provide funds for geoengineering research in the United States. This action had bipartisan support and was especially favored by Republicans. After the budget was passed, Randy Weber, a Republican representative from Texas said that “the future is bright for geoengineering (Ellison, 2018). The fact that geoengineering is getting support from those who traditionally deny the existence of climate change is concerning (Koronowski, et al., 2018). President Trump is a renowned climate denier and has made the point of filling his cabinet with other climate deniers (Koronowski, et al., 2018). Furthermore, Trump and much of his cabinet have worked hard to dismantle research and environmental protection groups such as NASA and the EPA (Koronowski, et al., 2018). Why they would support something that is meant to target climate change is suspicious, and their motivation is not completely clear. Perhaps Trump and his cabinet thought that by supporting geoengineering research, the public and the government would release the pressure on them to address current environmental issues. Several business leaders, politicians, and world leaders have reached out to Trump to try to get him to act on climate change. Pope Francis, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, are among many prominent world figures that have pressured Trump into fighting for environmental protection (Buncombe, et al., 2017). Perhaps the pressure from these world leaders, alongside public discontent, led him to support the geoengineering (Buncombe, et al., 2017). For the climate deniers in the government, geoengineering likely appears to be an easy solution to the climate situation. Supporting geoengineering would make the statement that they were addressing climate change, and could potentially decrease the pressure and criticism that they are receiving around environmental issues. Climate deniers are giving into the moral hazard. They are accepting geoengineering as a metaphorical seatbelt that will save the world from the car crash. However, just as seatbelts are not failsafe, neither is geoengineering. It will not address all environmental issues. It will be expensive. And finally, it will worsen much of the existing environmental crisis.

         The appeal of geoengineering is significant. It appears as a technological miracle that will solve key environmental issues without any mitigation efforts. However, the ramifications and costs of geoengineering are too great to consider it as a possibility. Therefore, contemplating the potential of it as a climate solution is a waste of time and resources. Geoengineering, would not only be a failed attempt at addressing climate issues, but it would, in fact, interfere with progress being made against climate change on an individual scale and in sectors such as environmental law and policy.


         The consequences of geoengineering that have been explored in this paper demonstrate just a few ways that it can negatively impact the environment and society (Radford, 2014; Murphy, 2009; Connolly, 2017; Robock et al., 2009). We know numerous ways geoengineering could backfire, however, there are likely far more ways that we simply do not know of because we do not fully understand the climate. There is no way of knowing what will happen when you try to alter an entire global system (Robock, 2009). The repercussions of geoengineering could be incredibly severe, far beyond what we already understand and expect.

         The solution to the climate crisis is not simple. Instead of investing in a few trillion dollar ideas to reverse climate change, we need to consider our own individual impact on the environment. We need to stop considering the environment as something under our control. On the contrary, we need to accept our place in the world as just one species among many that is trying to fit into its ecosystem. This means mitigating our consumption of energy and goods, both on an individual and governmental scale. We need to pass aggressive laws limiting consumption of all goods, especially those that emit fossil fuels. We need to stop trying to controlling the climate, and instead, focus on mitigating our impact on the planet.


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