We need an engineering solution to climate change

Illustration for article titled We need an engineering solution to climate change

We hear a lot about slowing climate change by recycling, cutting fossil fuel use, and just generally limiting our carbon footprints. But scientists and engineers believe there could be solutions that go beyond that. These are so-called geoengineering solutions, which include everything from squirting particles into the stratosphere to cool the planet, to creating massive carbon sinks that would pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Until recently, such solutions were regarded as wildly speculative. But now they are gaining traction — especially among politicians and policy-makers who previously rejected environmental conservation plans.


Now, a report released this month from the Bipartisan Policy Center — authored by scientists and government policy makers across the political spectrum — tries to lay the groundwork for systematic geoengineering studies and experiments. The authors call it "climate remediation." The idea is that someday soon we might control Earth's atmosphere, making the world more habitable for ourselves and our fellow creatures again.

The group defines climate remediation "to mean intentional actions taken to counter the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere." Contrast this with climate mitigation, which is about reducing emissions in the present, going forward. The report doesn't offer any specific climate remediation strategies, but it does suggest two areas of research that the U.S. and other governments should invest in: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM).

In short, we need massive engineering projects that could suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, or reduce sunlight. We've explored some of the tools that could accomplish these tasks in the Terraforming Earth series on io9. The report does not suggest we'd do this instead of CO2 emission reduction. We'd want to investigate geoengineering possibilities while also reducing emissions.

Most of the report is what what futurist Jamais Cascio, author of Hacking the Earth, called "a political document." Cascio, who did not contribute to the report, told io9:

The importance of this report is that it gives more mainstream legitimacy to the position. It's not just a bunch of scientists, it's political people too, including some with visibility at DC cocktail parties. The inclusion of representatives from both the Environmental Defense Fund and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories gives cover across the moderate political spectrum, making it harder to dismiss the report on partisan terms. In short, this report makes it more likely that geoengineering (or "climate remediation") will become part of the DC discussion on climate.

It's also one way to persuade climate skeptics that we need to tackle climate problems now. Cascio added:

At the National Academies of Sciences meeting I was part of last year, one speaker noted that people who consider themselves climate skeptics become more supportive of efforts to cut carbon emissions when geoengineering enters the discussion; it's as if they suddenly take the idea of global warming more seriously when they see how far people are willing to go to fight it.


He added that this report is just one signal that geoengineering is being taken very seriously by federal governments — and by the military. One security issue that governments worry about, he said, is that one nation might decide to experiment with altering the climate but not get permission from other nations to do it. "Any geoengineering project would have global impacts, and according to most models some of those impacts would be negative," he explained. "For example, doing large-scale stratospheric sulfate injection has a high likelihood of disrupting monsoonal rainfall patterns in south Asia, causing major droughts." Any country testing out sulfate injection as a "solar management" strategy would be perceived as a security threat.

Geoengineering may be the most political form of scientific innovation yet: Every experiment must by necessity unite the world.


Read the Bipartisan Policy Center Report on Climate Remediation.

Photo via NASA




We all saw how that turned out in Highlander II. Just say no.

In all seriousness, do we even really have a good enough handle on what's really happening to start thinking about global-scale engineering to reverse it?