Geoengineering may be option in battle against climate change

As scientists’ predictions about climate change become ever more grim, some are saying we have another weapon in our arsenal.

Geoengineering is the intentional intervention in the climate system to counteract the effects of human-made climate change.

Examples include putting sulphur dioxide droplets into the upper atmosphere to deflect solar radiation away from the Earth, or spraying saltwater into clouds to make them more reflective.

Such measures may become necessary as climate change spirals out of control.

Douglas MacMartin, a researcher who studies geoengineering at the California Institute of Technology, says the first example is the most plausible and the best understood.

“It’s absolutely certain that that would cool the planet, and it’s absolutely certain that we could do it,” he said.

MacMartin is the first to acknowledge the risks of geoengineering, but he believes the risks from climate change are far greater.

“I think it’s likely that we’ll get to a place where the consequences of not doing [geoengineering] are worse than the consequences of doing it,” he said, though acknowledging we’re not quite there yet.

Included in these consequences are mass starvation from crop failures in India and Africa, enormous changes in Arctic ecosystems, and the complete extinction of corral reefs.

MacMartin says by no means is geoengineering the only solution.

“There’s not a single researcher on the planet who would think about geoengineering as an alternative to cutting carbon.”

Geoengineering is controversial, especially amongst environmentalists, many of whom are opposed to any human interference with the Earth’s climate systems.

“I generally don’t think geoengineering is a very good idea,” said Christian Holz, the head of Climate Action Network Canada, an advocacy group that promotes the climate movement.

Holz says the climate is so complicated and hard to predict, that no one really knows what would happen with geoengineering.

“Tinkering with the Earth’s systems that we don’t completely understand is a very dangerous exercise.”

Bill McKibben, an American author and founder of the environmental organization 350.org, calls geoengineering a “break-the-glass solution.”

He says it’s really emblematic of the dire situation we’re in.

“Mark it for what it is – the ultimate last resort, and a deep sign of the addiction causing our problem. To confront a crisis caused by a chemical in the atmosphere and to say, ‘hey, let’s put some more chemicals in’ is really something,” McKibben said.

MacMartin says we’re making no progress on stopping climate change, and it’s time to at least study and consider options like geoengineering.

“We haven’t cut emissions in the slightest in the 20 years that I’ve been paying attention,” he said.

He believes there’s a “reasonable probability” of a four degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures, far above the two degree limit hoped for by scientists around the world. This view is shared by many scientists and organizations, such as the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“[Four degrees above normal levels] is a completely different world. We have absolutely no idea what it looks like,” MacMartin said.

According to Simon Dalby, a professor of geography and environmental studies are Carleton University, after the two degree limit, climate change may become self-sustaining (runaway climate change) so that even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions, the climate continues to change.

“Runaway climate change is the really scary one. There’s already some estimates that we may be at the early stages of that,” he said.

And Canadians are not immune to the dangers.

Dalby says Canadians are vulnerable to forest fires from heat waves and flight disruptions from more frequent large storms. Northern communities are suffering from increasing isolation from ice roads that are open for weeks instead of years.

“Canadians should not be too complacent about this,” he said. “We are not immune from the consequences of climate change.”

Christian Holz agrees.

He points out that Ontario saw a lot of fruit crop failures due to changing weather patterns related to climate change last year.

He also mentions problems for the North.

“Traditional lifestyles of the North are very much under threat.”

Caribou migration patterns are changing and buildings on melting permafrost are being damaged.

Dr. John Last is a public health specialist and professor of epidemiology at the University of Ottawa. He served on advisory committees studying the impacts of climate change for Health Canada under past Liberal governments.

Last says the current government shut down most of these committees and plans for dealing with and monitoring climate change.

“When the Harper government came in, they scrapped all that. They don’t believe in climate change. They think it’s a communist plot.”

He says the main problem Canada faces from floods, droughts, and an unpredictable climate is food insecurity.

The Harper government has been heavily criticized for its lack of commitment to climate change.

“Canada usually helps solve the world’s problems. On climate change they’ve been among the most retrograde nations on earth, hobbling international diplomacy to serve the needs of the tar sands tycoons,” Bill McKibben said.

Climate Action Network ranked Canada the lowest of the world’s developed countries on climate change policy.

“On the federal level, they’re absolutely insufficient,” Christian Holz said, though he pointed out that provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario have much better policies.

He said Canada only represents 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, but produces two or three per cent of global emissions, which is “extraordinarily high” for its size.

Canada promised to reduce emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen.

“That’s already a major step back from previous commitments,” Holz said.

A report from the auditor general that came out last year said that according to Environment Canada’s own records, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are slated to be 7.4 per cent above 2005 levels in 2020, instead of 17 percent below.

The report pointed out that 178 million tonnes in emissions reductions are needed to meet the 2020 target, but existing federal regulations are expected to reduce emissions by only 11 to 13 million tonnes.

“The big problem in Canada is that we have a federal government that thinks the future prosperity of this country is dependent on digging as much tar sands out of Alberta as quickly as possible, rather than thinking seriously about alternative energy sources,” Simon Dalby said.

McKibben said we may have a tentative reason for hope.

“It comes from movement building. There wasn’t a climate change movement even five years ago, because I think people assumed reason would prevail. Clearly, money has prevailed – fossil fuel money. So now there’s a movement rising.”

Holz said North America is perhaps the only region in the world that doesn’t take climate change seriously, but after Hurricane Sandy, people in America are more willing to talk about it.

MacMartin said scientists aren’t so hopeful.

“We’re a lot more scared than the environmentalists. I don’t share the optimism of the environmental community, either with respects to our confidence in how well we know the climate, or with respects to human nature.”

He said what scares him the most is what we can’t predict.

For example, due to the warmer weather, mountain pine beetles no longer die in the winter, and this results in massive forest devastation from B.C. to Colorado.

“Nobody predicted that.”

John Last said there will be “almost apocalyptic consequences unless things change dramatically,” including hundreds of millions of climate refugees fleeing devastating conditions in their homes.

He said this will be a disaster.

“Whenever you get large numbers of refugees moving around, you get living conditions that expose them to all kinds of health risks,” like gastrointestinal diseases.

But refugees won’t be the only ones in danger. A warmer climate raises the risks of diseases for billions of people.

“Nothing enjoys hot conditions more than insects like mosquitos, which carry several diseases like malaria and dengue fever,” Last said.

Last was himself in Europe in 2003 during the heat wave that killed over 50,000 people.

A study from NASA done last year and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said such heat waves are definitely caused by climate change.

Last said we’re now seeing a lot more deaths from these heat waves.

Dalby said we may already be at the point of no return, but we can’t give up.

“Is it too late? Well, who knows, but you have to try anyway.”

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