Speaking for the climate mainstream, activists such as Greta Thunberg stress that only a drastic push toward net-zero carbon emissions can save the world. But, as Thunberg readily admits, the politics to achieve this don’t exist. If anything, the events of the past decade — including the failure of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP25, climate conference in Madrid this month — have shown that asking our political systems to achieve net-zero emissions quickly is like asking a toaster to make a cup of coffee. Which is why the world could turn to a drastic step to evade the pitfalls of climate politics as we know them: geoengineering.
The basic idea of solar geoengineering, which most often involves spraying shiny droplets into the upper atmosphere to cool the planet, strikes some people as outlandish. It isn’t. We know that spraying reflective particles into the upper atmosphere can cool down the Earth because we’ve measured volcanoes doing precisely that. And the key technologies we’d need to mimic that effect have been in place since the 1950s.
Geoengineering’s biggest selling point is its cost. Up-front investments are estimated in the $1 billion to $100 billion range, not even 1 percent of low cost estimates for the proposed Green New Deal, or at most 15 percent of what the Pentagon spends in a year. Once it’s operational, estimates of what it would cost to keep it running vary, but the figure would likely be between $2 billion and $10 billion a year. By comparison, WeWork lost $1.25 billion in the most recent quarter.
It’s important to avoid magical thinking. Solar geoengineering is not a solution to global warming. It’s a desperate gambit to blunt some — not even all — of its worst effects.
And it comes with risks, including serious ones. Some computer models suggest it could lead to much less rain, and a botched project could disrupt key weather patterns such as the Indian monsoon and the rains that sustain the Amazon. Recent studies suggest it would make food crops less productive. Some worry a scheme that improves China’s climate could worsen India’s, setting the nuclear-armed neighbors on a path to war. We just don’t know.
Even proponents accept that geoengineering would do nothing to blunt the ocean acidification that’s wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems, and it may not even stop sea-level rise, given that ice sheets are melting from the bottom up, not from the top down.
Under normal conditions, these risks and drawbacks would consign the idea to the dustbin of history. But we are not living under normal conditions. With humanity blowing through one carbon target after another and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports turning from dire to apocalyptic, the question is increasingly about the balance of risk.
Yes, a geoengineered future may be scary. But unchecked climate change is absolutely terrifying. And attempts to prevent it aren’t working.
Increasingly, climate modelers are having to make heroic assumptions about taking carbon out of the atmosphere to stay within the target 2-degree Celsius global temperature rise. To deliver these targets, continent-sized new forests would need to be planted or speculative new technologies would have to swoop in to save us.
Climate activists typically blame the failure to cut emissions on greedy corporations and crooked politicians. If only. The regrettable reality is that people around the world demand cheap energy and punish leaders who threaten their access to it. The rare politician who dares to lead is liable to pay a price: Witness the Yellow Vest uprising French President Emmanuel Macron faced for hiking fuel taxes. Protesters from Ecuador and Egypt to Iran, Nigeria and Indonesia have taken to the streets in recent years when fossil-fuel subsidies come under threat.
The grim politics of net-zero could leave geoengineering as a final gambit. Unlike carbon abatement, there’s no need for a global consensus to launch it. It just takes one decision-maker to conclude the costs of runaway climate change are likely to be more than what it would take to create such a project.
counterpointNo, Biden shouldn’t declare a national emergency on climate
There are plenty of candidates.
Today, about 70 countries have government spending budgets above $20 billion, meaning that, after the technology has been set up, they could sustain a geoengineering project for potentially as little as 10 percent of their overall spending. Austria could afford it on its own for 1 percent of its yearly public spending, and the Netherlands for 0.6 percent of its budget. Japan, with huge high-value infrastructure at sea level, could do it for 0.02 percent of its budget.
For that matter, there are now more than 150 people with net worths north of $10 billion, any one of whom could bankroll a scheme for a few years single-handedly. Mike Bloomberg could probably start it up on his own and still have billions left over for doomed presidential bids.
This means someone is virtually sure to give it a try sooner or later. If that’s the case, we must make sure it is done right.
Solar geoengineering is no panacea. But if done well, it could give humanity a couple decades of breathing room to get its act together to figure out the towering technological and ecological challenges of negative emissions. And God knows the planet could use some breathing room right now.