Thursday, November 1, 2012

Geoengineering: Is it possible to stop?

image credit: Jacob Escobedo

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled "Geoengineering: Testing the Waters" author Naomi Klein warns of possible dangers and unintended consequences of this practice, which is gaining momentum. Klein cites a "growing number of would-be geoengineers who advocate high-risk, large-scale technical interventions that would fundamentally change the oceans and skies in order to reduce the effects of global warming." She also tells the story of a "rogue geoengineer" who took it upon himself to dump "120 tons of iron dust off the hull of a rented fishing boat" into the ocean off British Columbia. "The plan was to create an algae bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat climate change."

Only the most extremely ideological now question the significance of global warming and the consensus among scientists is that humankind is contributing to it. In light of this it is tempting to think that we also can come up with a technological solution, which is what geoengineering is all about.

As Klein puts it, "Geoengineering offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely. And then there is the fear. Every week seems to bring more terrifying climate news, from reports of ice sheets melting ahead of schedule to oceans acidifying far faster than expected." Something must be done about it!

We humans have been tinkering with our environment since we learned to harness fire and divert streams for irrigation. It seems unlikely that we will stop anytime soon.

But the dangers are real that the effects of geoengineering will be more harmful than beneficial and that our future may look like any one of a number of post-apocalyptic visions have suggested. As I write this the northeast of the U.S. is still cleaning up after "Superstorm Sandy." This past year has been one for the record books, with many extreme weather events. Is this the new normal?

Klein suggests that even if geoengineering achieves a measure of success it may be at the expense of our relationship to nature, that potentially more intense "volcanic" sunsets, for example, might elicit less awe and more vague unease. "In the age of geoengineering, we might find ourselves confronting the end of miracles, too."

This is not from hurricane Sandy, but an "ordinary" storm over Lake Michigan about a year ago. Wondrous, yes. But perhaps a bit disquieting, too.

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