‘Masking’ the problem

Is it time for a radical new approach to fighting global warming? (part 2)

18 June 2019

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While research continues, climate engineering has no shortage of critics.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has previously described SRM as “untested” and suggested it “would entail numerous uncertainties, side effects, risks and shortcomings and has particular governance and ethical implications.”

“In spite of the estimated low potential costs of some SRM deployment technologies, they will not necessarily pass a benefit-cost test that takes account of the range of risks and side effects,” the IPCC said in its Fifth Assessment Report in 2014.

More recently, a paper published by the Climate Analytics think-tank similarly argued the risks would be too high. It noted that SRM is not a comprehensive solution to climate change, as it would merely “mask warming temporarily” and would not save coral reefs from severe damage, for example.

“Solar radiation management does not halt, reverse or address in any other way the profound and dangerous problem of ocean acidification, which threatens coral reefs and marine life, as it does not reduce CO2 emissions and hence influence atmospheric CO2 concentration,” said the authors of the paper, which was published in December 2018.

“SRM does not counter other effects of increased CO2 concentration adversely affecting the terrestrial and marine biosphere.”

The authors also argued that SRM might undermine the potential of solar energy projects and affect food production efforts because it would reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.

Among the environmental movement, some fear the latest research effort could take attention away from the critical task of rapidly shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy.

“Experimenting with risky technologies such as Solar Radiation Management and other geoengineering techniques is not the answer to the current climate crisis, but a dangerous distraction from the task of tackling emissions at [the] source,” says Sara Shaw, the Climate Justice and Energy International Programme Co-coordinator at Friends of the Earth International.

“Chasing wild geoengineering fantasies will only let fossil fuel companies off the hook and delay the much-needed energy revolution.”

Shaw adds that interference in complex climate and ocean systems “is likely to have severe and irreversible impacts on ecosystems and people.”

Parker, on the other hand, believes the risks of geoengineering need to be weighed against the risks of global warming continuing to dangerous levels.

“Chemotherapy is horrible, it’s dangerous, it’s unpleasant, it’s got very nasty physical side effects and so on, but whether or not one should undertake a course of chemotherapy is based on [the] perception of the risks of cancer,” Parker says.

“And so it goes with solar geoengineering: no one in their right mind would just want to do this, but it’s a response to a potentially even bigger threat. And as with anyone trying to make their mind up about a risky course of action, it’s about balancing risks.”

Just as the risks of chemotherapy could only be understood by also looking at the risks of cancer, “the risks of doing solar geoengineering can only be understood by looking at the risks of not doing solar geoengineering and seeing the temperatures continue to rise,” he adds.

Moore, too, points to the impacts of climate change as a reason to investigate geoengineering options. Referring to some of the business-as-usual scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions, he says, “there’s ample evidence that those will be utterly disastrous from every perspective – sea level, agricultural, you name it.”

Meanwhile, Masahiro Sugiyama, an Associate Professor at the Institute for Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo (previously the Policy Alternatives Research Institute), characterises climate engineering as “an insurance policy” that is worthy of further research.

Sugiyama has been part of several projects to gauge public reaction to the idea of geoengineering in Japan. He notes that the general public is not overly familiar with geoengineering – a fact confirmed when Global Ground Media approached people on the street in Tokyo in late March to ask them if they had heard of it.

Sugiyama and other researchers conducted focus groups with Japanese citizens in 2015 on the concept of geoengineering in general, and field trials of stratospheric aerosol injection in particular, which required explanation.

“Awareness is very low, first, and people are rightfully scared of the possibility of geoengineering, and I think they were worried about the potential side effects of geoengineering,” he says. “I think one interviewee said we should test this by spraying the aerosols onto the scientist who is advocating this technology.”

Sugiyama says people are hesitant because they see the climate system as complex and interconnected. They know, for example, that a train accident in one part of Japan can have flow-on disruptions across the entire rail network. “People, out of their experience, they know it has to be complex,” he explains. “So, whenever we tweak one aspect of the climate, what kind of impacts would it have on the other parts of the climate? They’re naturally concerned about these sorts of environmental side effects.”

However, Sugiyama says focus group interviewees did not immediately exclude geoengineering, and were open to more research being done, so long as adequate controls were put in place.

Researchers working on the DECIMALS projects are due to present their findings by the end of 2020, but, in the meantime, they plan to stimulate discussion about the issues at stake in their countries by hosting workshops with experts, policymakers, non-governmental organisations and the general public.

Parker maintains that a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions must remain the primary policy goal for governments around the world – an effort that must “massively increase.” SRM, he contends, should be seen as a potential way of reducing the risks posed by the greenhouse gases that countries have already emitted. The Earth has already warmed by about 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and climate scientists have noted that even if emissions from burning fossil fuels ended today, there would still be a further amount of “committed warming” due to the lag time in air-temperature increase.

Scientists at the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm last October when they found that a 1.5 degree Celsius increase should be the absolute maximum after unexpected rapid melting of polar ice. According to them, humankind currently only has 11 years left to radically reduce emissions or face the consequences.

When weighing up the risks from the potential deployment of SRM in the future, Parker says the socio-political dimension concerns him the most, because, in theory, one country could choose to deploy the technology unilaterally and affect the entire planet.

“So, what would happen in response to that? Would you get geoengineering leading to conflict, and even war, between nations?” Parker asks.

“Even if geoengineering worked perfectly, which it never would, but even if it worked perfectly and we knew there wouldn’t be any side effects and so on, how would you get agreement between, say, Russia, and India on where to set the global thermostat? Because, in isolation, Russia might benefit from a warmer planet [and] it seems likely that India would suffer disproportionately. And so how do you get agreement even to turn the system off?”

SRM, Parker adds, can never be an alternative to cutting emissions. “It can only ever imperfectly mask the impacts of warming. It doesn’t solve the problem. It might be able to reduce some risks, but really if we want a sane climate future, any sane climate future is based on massive emissions cuts, as soon as we can manage those cuts.”

Article and video by Daniel Hurst.
Editing by Mike Tatarski.
Video editing by Katya Skvortsova.
Illustrations by Imad Gebrayel.

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