Last July, a rogue businessman dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific with the intention of creating a massive plankton bloom to absorb carbon dioxide and attract salmon to the area. Although he meant to benefit the planet, oceanographers were quick to declare that "it is difficult, if not impossible, to detect and describe important effects that we know might occur months or years later." In other words, there’s no telling what he’s done. Welcome to the confusing concept of geoengineering.
In The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring offers false salvation from the darkness that threatens to overwhelm Middle Earth and the only hope for survival is to remove it beyond temptation. If climate change can stand in for evil Lord Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s quasi-parable then geoengineering is surely our One Ring.
Geoengineering refers to the theoretical process of strategically altering the Earth’s climate in order to counteract climate change. Theoretical – because nobody had previously dared to do it, despite the increasingly dire climatic situation. The physical forces at play are so poorly understood that we still do not have a firm grasp on all of the environmental processes we have set into motion through skyrocketing greenhouse gas concentrations.
In Tolkien’s world, the wise understood that the Ring was a force they couldn’t hope to control; that because of this, it was useless to them even on the brink of their destruction. They worked hard to keep it out of the hands of even their own allies who were seduced by the siren-song of an easy fix. The American businessman, Russ George, is our Boromir, reaching out and inviting unknown consequences.
As a cautionary tale, The Lord of the Rings has its limits. Tolkien built a world in which the forces of good and evil were very clearly defined. Here on our own version of Earth we must contend with more nuanced forms of morality and science.
For example, we may soon pass the point of no return on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Which is why the idea of geoengineering isn’t going away. It could work and we may come to a point where we’re out of alternatives.
Scientific opinion has historically been firmly against any further meddling with the climate. MIT professor Karl Wunsch explains, “we do not understand the system well enough to say what geoengineering might do 10, 50, 100+ years into the future." But prompted by a lack of progress in emission reductions, climate scientists like Paul Crutzen, whose names are beyond reproach, have begun cautiously and carefully suggesting that we do the necessary background work on geoengineering, just in case we need it.
According to Paul Higgins, Associate Director of the American Meteorological Society Policy Program, “one needs to really understand the complex earth system responses. Particularly biological responses, ecosystem responses; responses of the biosphere in general. All of this will feed back into the climate system.“
One geoengineering possibility is to mimic volcanic eruptions through a process called solar radiation management. Volcanoes themselves can provide a temporary screen from the sun, thus reducing the global warming effect. Too large an eruption, however – and this really illustrates the source of scientific unease – and all life on Earth will end. It wouldn’t take more than a rogue city or state (perhaps one in danger of sinking under rising sea levels) to take unilateral action. They could potentially save the world. Or (worst-case scenario) destroy it.
It’s complicated enough that many are pessimistic that we could ever get a firm grasp on all the variables and worst-case scenarios. “I don't think geoengineering will ever be implemented, because the research will not be able to demonstrate that it will be effective and safe," says Rutgers University professor Alan Robock.
And science will likely never reach a firm recommendation on the matter, even as climate change takes its toll, but Russ George has thrown a big monkey wrench in the works. The American businessman has demonstrated that scientific conservatism only matters insofar as everyone is listening to scientists. A lack of definitive research is not a barrier to action.
So do we use geoengineering to save us from ourselves? The citizens of Middle Earth would likely advise against it, but the real world is teeming with complexities beyond even the vivid imagination of Tolkien.
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