Contributor: Will Bugler
Our collective inability to turn promises into meaningful action on climate change has meant that many people feel that it may not be possible to keep global average temperatures below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. There is a general consensus amongst the scientific community that our window for action is brief and, as time ticks on, calls to explore options other options have been growing steadily. High profile investors such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson have backed research into potential geoengineering solutions that could combat global warming. These ideas range from projects to reflect solar radiation back into space using giant mirrors, to pouring iron filings into oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. The schemes have met considerable opposition from scientists and environmental groups alike. They raise important concerns over potential unpredictable consequences of such actions, as well as issues of morality and global justice.
The debate over geoengineering proposals frequently centres on global-scale, high-risk, headline-grabbing ideas that often appear to have been dreamt up by sci-fi writers. When couched in these terms geoengineering options are rightly dismissed as dangerous, and a distraction from the necessity of changing our profligate lifestyles. The arguments over the schemes usually focus on whether or not one or two large-scale geoengineering options are able to ‘solve’ the problem. In reality, of course, the hunt for a climate change panacea is almost certainly a futile quest and framing the debate in these terms will almost inevitably generate more heat than light. But does the fact that there is unlikely to be a single, ‘silver-bullet’ solution mean that all geoengineering projects should be dismissed out of hand? After all the term is an umbrella for a remarkably wide and varied number of schemes, each with their own comparative advantages and drawbacks.
Applying a resilience perspective to the debate can be illuminatory. A recent contribution to the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme’s (IGBP) Geoengineering Synthesis by Dr Mark Stafford Smith, former IGBP vice chair and director of climate adaptation at CSIRO and Lynn Russell, academic at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, shows that resilience has the potential to reframe the debate. Their argument follows that geoengineering projects should not be viewed as the “massive deployment of one or two technologies”, and instead a more productive, and realistic approach would be to see them as a “carefully designed suite of small-scale solutions” that can contribute to broader efforts to fight climate change.
Resilience thinking strongly suggests that attempts to manage the global climate through the deployment of a single technology are highly likely to fail. Efforts to control complex systems (and they don’t come much more complex than the global atmospheric system) using top-down measures are prone to chronic failure. Dr Stafford-Smith and Russell explain that this is due to the unpredictable nature of such systems. Complex feedbacks, time delays and changes in human behaviour as a response to the policy interventions make planning on a global scale nigh on impossible. They insist that “committing to singular, large-scale engineering interventions is therefore unwise.”
Another considerable problem with geoengineering solutions is that they all too frequently focus on the management of just one or two variables. For example, the ‘big mirrors in space’ solution is fixated on cutting out solar radiation but, in doing so, ignores all of the other consequences of high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, such as ocean acidification that threatens coral reef ecosystems. Geoengineering projects must be about much more than an attempt to control one or two variables. If they are to be successful and useful they must contribute to the resilience of the earth system. This would entail designing solutions that promote diversity, transformability and, importantly, reversibility.
The demands of a resilience framework put considerably more pressure on geoengineering solutions to be sensitively designed and properly thought through, and points towards a more realistic embodiment of this type of technology. In light of these considerations Dr Stafford-Smith and Russell’s “carefully designed suite of small-scale solutions” has the potential to be far more practical. As they point out, deploying a variety of scale solutions would allow for far greater flexibility; components could be reversed or withdrawn altogether if they were not working or had unexpected adverse consequences.
Certain geoengineering solutions can be applied at a local or regional scale, such as using materials in construction that absorb less solar radiation and increase the earth’s albedo. Small-scale biochar projects or breeding algae that absorb carbon dioxide can both sensibly be implemented to make a small contribution to the fight against climate change. It is foolish to suggest that they should be scaled globally to slay the evil spectre of climate change single-handed. But to say that they can make no beneficial contribution at all appears equally nonsensical. It’s akin to a fat person on a diet arguing against eating lettuce because if it was all they ate then they would surely die.
Geoengineering is likely to remain a contentious issue, and it is clear that many of the proposals being discussed at the moment would fall far short of the necessary safeguards to ensure they were implemented in a way that promoted resilience. However, much of the debate surrounding large-scale engineering projects does not appear to be grounded in reality. A resilience approach may offer a way of navigating the hyperbole and could bring the conversation back to the realities of scientific research grants and small scale testing of the safest, most acceptable options.
Many researchers agree that as our window for action closes, we will be increasingly likely to explore geoengineering options. I’m inclined to agree with Dr Stafford-Smith and Russell when they say that it would be best to do so from a well-informed, robust, resilience approach.
Holling CS, Meffe GK. (1996) Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conserv. Biol.10(2),328–337.
Launder B, Thompson JMT. (2008) Geoscale engineering to avert dangerous climate change. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A366,3841–3842
Schneider S, Broecker W. (2007) Geoengineering may be risky but we need to explore it. New Sci.195(2613),44–45
Stafford-Smith, M., and Russell L., (2011) -Biosphere Programme’s (IGBP) Geoengineering Synthesis http://www.future-science.com/doi/full/10.4155/cmt.11.71