Solar Geoengineering Proposals Raise Discussion on Ethics and Plausibility

Image Source: Climate Central

Changes in the environment have reached levels that create noticeable and negative impacts around the globe. The threat of melting ice elevating sea levels, droughts and heightened temperatures leading to famine, and the like have led to intervention attempts on multiple levels. Regulations on companies that leave a carbon footprint have guided how industries operate; others still take the initiative and boast of policies that invoke green practices. Now, the question of geoengineering, and most recently solar geoengineering, has been brought into the spotlight, inspiring debates on the logistics, ethics, and depth of such a practice.

Geoengineering is a form of climate intervention, a large-scale action to allay the harmful consequences of global warming.

An issue of debate presented by geoengineering is accountability. Does putting resources into geoengineering- into healing the results of damaging environmental practices- give large corporations the green light to maintain the status quo, if the consequences will be addressed by other parties?

In this same vein of thought, it is commonly agreed among scientists that geoengineering cannot be regarded as a total substitute for climate change mitigation, which consists of actions and policies to limit greenhouse gases humans produce through various means.

Following this policy, climate intervention may be seen as not only the large-scale, government-backed stuff of science fiction made real from cloud seeding to machines mimicking trees by sucking carbon dioxide from the air, and the like.

Rather, geoengineering must be an all-encompassing effort, with the involvement of anyone who may have an impact on the climate and overall conditions of the planet: everyone. Safe, green practices- or at the very least mindfulness and considerate navigation- are just as valid a currency as forestation.

Much like other key points of debate in the U.S. and around the world, balance between effectiveness and responsibility must be achieved, as all parties involved navigate how to achieve their goals and leave the earth as bountiful as it was yesterday.

Indeed, geoengineering to alleviate the effects of climate change have become issues of interest for national security. When addressing the Senate in January, National Security Director Dan Coats stated that “global environmental and ecological degradation as well as climate change are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress and discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

However, pursuing safe measures of intervention is as important as healing global warming itself.

Peter Kiemel, counselor for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Security Council, provided an example of a proposal: “There are unilateral efforts by countries and groups to deploy geo-engineering, which is still a theoretical field, but they are exploring how to moderate climate by injecting aerosols or altering the reflectivity of clouds.”

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Specific proposals to use sulfur dioxide as a radiation coolant presents uncertainties researchers do not fully understand.

Further, just as pollution from one country can affect another- such as when pollution from Asia penetrated into the United States, so too may geoengineering efforts, successful or not. This would call into question international boundaries and require cooperation between nations. Kiemel worries “countries will argue over what will work well and they could experiment without any international agreements.”

However, some countries stand to benefit in some ways from climate change. In contrast, smaller or lesser developed countries are projected to feel the damages of global warming in higher proportions than their larger counterparts- and could be more greatly harmed by any improper geoengineering endeavors, including solar geoengineering; the concern lies in the fact that while solar geoengineering may reduce harmful rays hitting the earth’s surface, it may also reduce rainfall and promote hurricanes.

Rod Schoonover, senior analyst with the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research Office of Geography and Global Affairs, cited financing as a factor whose importance could not be overstated.

“The costs are still being figured out, and they are probably much larger than we think. The problem with geo-engineering is once you do it, once you’re reliant on it, it is very hard to quit.”

Already the debate is as heated as the planet concerning various methods of geoengineering. The aforementioned proposal of solar engineering was presented in past studies as posing further risks to the environment, and disproportionately so to certain countries.

Supporters, however, refer to new research that asserts a safe way to pursue solar geoengineering. In part, the reportedly safer model halves the amount of aerosols sprayed into the atmosphere to redirect harmful rays.

Climate scientists David Keith and Kerry Emanuel of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology respectively presented the alternative approach, and called for insurance plans to safeguard smaller countries’ interests and security.

When efforts to fuel international discussions on geoengineering were shot down, Keith was displeased. “The big issue is whether there is a serious, international, open-access and well-funded research project to understand the risks and efficacy of solar engineering.”

Addressing the issue of climate change is already difficult. But the effort does not stop at acknowledging its existence and the threat it poses to the planet. The dialogue must continue through the murky waters and tangled bramble of ethics, science, diplomacy, and safety to produce results that are in everyone’s best interests.

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