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Can We Geo-Engineer Our Way Out of This Climate Crisis?

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Matthew Hemmins questions whether geo-engineering could be the answer to our global climate crisis, or if it will cause more issues than it solves.

The general public and politicians alike are finally starting to accept that we are currently living through a climate crisis. Slowly but surely they are finally starting to appreciate the scale and severity of the damage that we are inflicting upon ourselves and every other organism that shares our air, our vegetation and our oceans. So the emphasis now turns away from convincing people that there is indeed a problem, and towards thinking about how to solve it.

There is a problem though and it’s that governments seem allergic to simple, cost-effective solutions. Governments seem fixated on unwieldy, costly and largely ineffective solutions that take far too long and have minimal effect. We’ve seen this time and time again throughout history, with a good recent example being the 2001 decision to subsidize diesel cars over petrol ones, owing to their lower carbon dioxide emissions. As we can see clearly now with hindsight that was a terrible decision, with a former science minister going so far as to say that diesel cars are “literally killing people.” A much easier and environmentally friendly solution would have been to invest and promote hybrid or electric cars. Instead of kicking the can down the road a few years with a failed tax scheme.

But what does this have to do with climate change now? And what is “geo-engineering” anyway? Well, to answer the first, the example above nicely illustrates the potential of investing in new technologies and simple solutions. To answer the second, geo-engineering may well prove to be a new technology that provides a relatively simple solution to our current climate crisis.

Its worth knowing that there are a wide variety of possible geo-engineering methods, each with its own balance of risk and reward. These are just some examples of proposed solutions:

1. Marine Cloud Brightening (MCB) – increasing the brightness of clouds, thereby reflecting light back out into space

2. Ocean Fertilization – dumping iron into the ocean to stimulate phytoplankton growth and further take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

3. Snow Forest Clearance – creating large, reflective snow-covered areas that would reflect light back into space

4. Microbubbles – pumping millions of tiny, reflective bubbles into the ocean to reflect light back into space.

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Of course, there any many more such ideas and solutions and if you would like to read in more detail about them, Geo-Engineering Monitor is a good place to start. But this article will focus on one particular method, which may yield the most effective results of them all: Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI). The name sounds a bit daunting but the idea itself is fairly simple. In short, reflective sulfur dioxide particles would be injected into the highest part of the atmosphere (the stratosphere), where they would reflect some of the radiation coming from the sun, thereby cooling the planet and halting global warming. That’s the theory at least.

I first came across the idea of Stratospheric Aerosol Injection in the book Superfreakonomics by Steven Dubner and Steven Levitt, who offer it up as a relatively cheap and “fiendishly simple” plan to stop global warming. To back up their point Dubner and Levitt cite the example of Mount Pinatubo, which erupted in 1991 in the Philippines, spewing over 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. According to Dubner and Levitt, over the next two years this single eruption managed to cool the whole planet by 0.5 degrees Celsius, practically reversing the cumulative effects of global warming of the previous hundred years, certainly an impressive feat.

Now, Dubner and Levitt openly admit that relying on massive volcanic eruptions every hundred years or so would be a foolish method of combating climate change, but here is where the engineering part comes in. Dubner and Levitt argue that if one country – or indeed a collection of them – created a “garden hose to the sky,” pumping thirty-four gallons per minute of sulfur dioxide into the high Arctic then they could reverse the warming effects there, and reduce them in much of the Western Hemisphere. As the High Arctic is so sensitive to changes in the climate there it would only take around thirty-four gallons per minute – around the same volume as an ordinary garden hose can produce – to yield the desired result.

Now it is worth noting that Dubner and Levitt received a lot of criticism in the wake of the book being published, mainly from environmental groups taking issue with their portrayal of geo-engineering as “fiendishly simple,” where in fact there could be countless untold side effects to such a solution. However, we are quickly reaching the point of no return with regards to climate change and global warming, and at a certain point one has to ask if the benefits of such a solution would outweigh the potential costs?

We’ve seen for decades now the refusal of governments to commit to drastically cutting the rates of greenhouse gases they emit, preferring easily achievable long-run targets. Well, to quote John Maynard Keynes, “in the long-run we’re all dead.”

Indeed, geo-engineering is far from a perfect solution, nor is it really a solution at all. In reality it’s a stopgap. But it is one that we soon might need. The clock is running down and the action that is currently being taken is simply not enough, but a plan like this may at least bide us enough time for those “long-run targets” to kick in and make a substantial difference. The Economist also points out “America alone could launch a program at a cost less than NASA’s annual budget, and – if all goes to plan – stop warming in its tracks.”

Even if this solution only bought us another few decades on the doomsday clock, which could prove pivotal, think about the state of technology back in 1999. Now admittedly that’s more difficult for me than most as I was only alive for four months of it, but I’ve seen how far technology has advanced in my lifetime and it’s been incredible. An extra few decades may provide enough time for research to yield a more permanent solution, or it may buy enough time for plans such as the Green New Deal in America to pass and take effect.

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Admittedly, there are always risks to such a proposal, especially one that has never been attempted before on such a scale. But luckily there is also a solution in this case and that’s simply to stop pumping sulfur dioxide. The amount that would be required is only a fraction (one-twentieth of one percent) of current annual sulfur emissions anyway, just with much better targeting. So if any unforeseen consequences do arise then the “garden hose” can simply be shut off and there should not be any long-term damage. Of course, any potential risk to the planet is far from ideal but we will soon reach a tipping point where doing what we currently are (which on a global scale amounts to very little), will be of a much higher risk.

Additionally, to those who would object to geo-engineering on the principal of disrupting the Earth’s natural state I would argue that we are far from uncharted territory in that sense. For decades now countries have been cloud seeding to alter the natural level of rainfall, and for centuries now we have been pumping carbon dioxide and methane into sky, thereby placing us in the current crisis we’re living through. This plan would in essence create a man-made solution to a man-made problem… Or it would at least give us time to find another solution, man-made or otherwise.

In sum, we currently find ourselves in a climate crisis and governments around the world seem unable to set aside the goal of economic growth in order to give the planet enough time to save itself. As the tipping point reaches nearer, the paltry targets set to marginally decrease emissions in decade’s time look less and less significant. Indeed, the article I highlighted earlier from The Economist sums it up nicely in that, “the longer climate targets are missed, the more likely geo-engineering is to be used.” To be sure, geo-engineering may not prove to be “fiendishly simple,” and it may have untold side effects. Undoubtedly, in an ideal world no sane person would ever countenance deliberately spewing tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. But unfortunately we no longer live in an ideal world. Desperate times call for desperate measures and this measure may just give us enough breathing space to properly combat climate change.

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So, can we “geo-engineer our way out of this climate crisis?” Probably not. In truth, we are likely only going to be able to reverse the effects of climate change by cutting emissions and finding more sustainable fuel sources, and adopting them en mass, and by replacing the wasteful society in which we currently live, for a more renewable one. But, geo-engineering may delay the tipping point of climate change for long enough so that we can find a different way out.

About the author: Matt Hemmins is a 2nd year History and Economics student at the University of York.  He is particularly interested in politics and looking at ways to improve and revise traditional economic theory.  His Twitter handle is @HistoryMatters7.

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