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Geoengineering: The Boomerang Solution to Climate Change

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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Other Experts. Retrieved April 04, 2018, from http://www.geoengineeringwatch.org/geoengineering-dangers-discussed-by-officials-agency-scientists-and-other-experts/

The Benefits of Backward Biological Thinking

      Many people believe that the government and higher powers should not be able to influence the actions and liberties of biological beings; they believe it is immoral and cruel. However, even in our current society, many animals, humans included, have their liberties restricted and their actions and biological systems controlled. From genetically modified chickens to China’s one-child policy, there are and have been establishments controlling the biology and liberty of living beings. From a moral standpoint, many people are disturbed by these actions. However, limiting and modifying the biology and abilities of animals has undeniable benefits, such as reducing the human population, increasing food availability, and protecting endangered animals. By modifying biological systems through genetically modified organisms(GMOs), and establishing policies that limit population, there could be undeniable benefits for both society and the natural environment.

        Genetically modified organisms(GMOs) can provide food for those in need and can increase the well-being of the environment in doing so. Humanity has exceeded its carry capacity, resulting in famines and food-insecurities across the globe. Currently, nearly 800 million people across the globe are suffering from starvation (borgenproject.org). While food waste is largely to blame for this situation, a lack of available food across the globe is also a major cause of the crisis. Furthermore,  in an attempt to supply food to the growing population, many species are being over-hunted, particularly fish. Genetically modified organisms could allow for more efficient food production by increasing the size of the product and increasing its yield. For instance, genetically engineered salmon have recently been approved for consumption. Being far larger than traditional salmon, these fish not only provide more food for people, but they also decrease the draw and necessity of hunting natural salmon. In this way, a natural species is being preserved, and more food is made available to the public. Furthermore, an increasing number of crops are becoming genetically engineered, allowing for larger plants, pest resistance, and other desired traits. However, there is a serious controversy over the environmental ethics of GMOs, and there are concerns that GMOs will not be able to adapt to pest mutations. While these concerns are not unprecedented,  at their roots GMOs have serious potential to increase food production and have already proven the capability of outperforming natural crop varieties. Using genetic engineering, pesticides can be rendered unnecessary, which would greatly improve environmental health. Furthermore, due to the potential increased yield of GMOs, more land can be devoted to preserving natural habitats that would otherwise not exist if they were converted to farmland (nytimes.com). If more species and plant types were genetically modified, the potential food increase and preservation of species would be drastically increased.

        Enacting policies that would limit the number of children women can have would be highly beneficial for the environment and society. As a result of our ever-growing population, we are consuming more resources, namely fossil fuels, which cause climate change. Furthermore, the increasing human population is resulting in famines and food-insecurities across the globe.  If our population were to decrease, emissions and consumption would naturally decrease alongside, lessening environmental destruction. Many people argue that it is inhumane and ineffective to limit the number of children women can have. However, what is more important, the right to have more than one child, or the right for countless species to continue to survive on this planet, humans included? If people were only permitted to produce one child the environmental benefits would be incomparable. The single best way to decrease environmental degradation is decreasing the world’s population (ES118). If policies were enacted like the one-child policy in China,  there would be no death or pain involved in the reduction of the human population. Furthermore, if the population did decrease by this means, starvation and general consumption would decrease, causing existing humans to be able to use essential resources that they may otherwise not be able to have. Decreasing birth rates would cause no physical damage to anyone or anything; instead, it would result in vital environmental restoration and would improve the well-being of the human race.

        Biotechnology and biological control inevitably bring up the moral question: Is it okay to alter natural biology, and will its benefits outweigh the ramifications it could have on society? Controlling biology could drastically improve the well-being of our society and the world. However, research needs to be conducted on the dangers of specific technologies and policies that would control biology before they are implemented. With the pressing environmental crisis and climate change, humanity needs to come up with new solutions if it wishes to save the world from further environmental degradation. Biotechnology and policies regulating childbirth could solve this problem by increasing food production and decreasing the human population in a manner that avoids suffering.












ES 118 Lecture


Emotional Robots: Useless and Dangerous

      Robots are real. This idea has severe, negative connotations for much of society. When many people think of robots they likely think of a Terminator-like being; a singularity with desires to raize humanity. Currently, that is not the status of artificial intelligence (AI). Instead, AI is used to aid humans by means such as informing us where restaurants are or driving us to certain locations. Artificial intelligence and robots play a key role in our society, and will likely become even more important as computer scientists make new discoveries. However, although the advancement of AI can prove useful, there is a limit that needs to be drawn: artificial emotion and highly advanced thought. It would be unwise for scientists to mimic the infamous Victor Frankenstein by creating beings capable of human emotion and thought. While robots that can perform tasks for humans are incredibly useful in society, creating robots capable of more complex thought and feelings of emotions is unnecessary and could result in controversy over robotic rights, and could potentially lead to human demise if the laws of robotics were overcome.

      Current robots are already incredibly useful, and advancing their cognitive abilities to have emotion and improved intelligence would reap no greater benefit. Robots are used in various industries. From working in automobile companies to building electronics, robots play a key role in our society (roboto). Why we would need more advanced robots, capable of achieving greater tasks is a mystery to me. Some people would argue that robots in their current state will never be as adept at unique problem solving as humans, and because of this, it could be useful to have more advanced robots. However, there is evidence that contradicts this claim. In the MIT Technology Review, they discussed an experiment where judges talked to a chatbot and a real human and had to determine which was which. In many cases the judges thought the chatbot was the real human and vice versa, proving the complex mental capacity and quick thinking of AI (MIT). Robots are already far more advanced than many people realize; they can do many things humans cannot and can appear more human than humans (MIT).  Robot emotion is becoming a very real possibility, and the outcomes of it could be devastating.

      If robots were to feel emotions, society would need to consider their rights as living beings, which could be detrimental to humanity. It is unjust and cruel to deny a living, caring thing certain treatments and activities. Therefore, robots with emotions and specific desires would be a severe weight on our society. Robots are designed to aid humans, and purely that.  If AI had emotions, they would have certain needs beyond what is needed for their basic function. If robots were to suddenly need food or fuel, or leisure time, or certain amenities, there would be a noticeable cost to society.  Furthermore, if the individual desires of AI conflicted with that of humans,  the consequences could be severe.

      Robots, enhanced with personal desires and emotion, could seek to destroy humanity if they felt that humanity’s existence was negatively affecting the earth. Robots are highly logical; they are created and given intelligence through clear, thought out code, that commands for highly specific actions. Therefore, to them, it may be rational to eradicate human life, as it is the logical action to do to improve the wellbeing of the earth. From bombing massive swaths of land to pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to causing the sixth mass extinction, human impact on the earth is clearly not positive (NASA). Robots could assess the pros and cons of human existence, and based on humanity’s current actions, it is likely that AI would find us to be a plague on earth that they would try to annihilate. 

      I will say it again: Robots are incredibly useful. Society would not be anywhere near where it is now without them. However, I think we should try to be content with the level of aid they give us now, and not strive to advance them further. Highly advanced robots that could be capable of emotion would be an extreme danger to society, which is why I caution scientists to consider where they are headed, and not make a mistake as costly as that of Victor Frankenstein; we do not want to create a being or beings that have desires that conflict with our own, as these conflictions could lead to a negative outcome. While many scientific inventions have furthered the human race, improved robotic thought and emotion would not be one of those inventions; it would be the atom bomb of the future. 





MIT Technology Review. “The AI Issue”





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