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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Can We Fix Climate Change With Technology?

Can We Fix Climate Change With Technology?

A report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that experiments in blotting out the sun in order to reduce the amount of the sun’s rays that hit the Earth would be too risky.

Spraying aerosols into the atmosphere – one leading approaching to “geoengineering” – would be a massive science experiment that would have unknown environmental side effects. The fallout on precipitation patterns, agricultural productivity, and the global climate cannot be fully known until it is unleashed. If the United States seeded the atmosphere with aerosols that produced more drought in, say, sub-Saharan Africa, that would potentially raise indefensible ethical questions.

Lowering global temperatures by reducing sun exposure – euphemistically known as “albedo modification” – would also merely treat the symptom of climate change, rather than the cause. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would remain unchanged. As such, sending aerosols up into the sky would be a process that would need to be maintained for many hundreds of years. It would also do nothing to address ocean acidification, another extraordinary problem facing humanity, which could lead to the collapse of fisheries around the world and alter global climate patterns. Related: The $17.6 Trillion Solution To Climate Change

“No reputable scientist I know thinks placing tiny reflecting particles in the stratosphere is a good idea, although some support studying it,” argues Philip Duffy, President the Woods Hole Research Center. Other geoengineering strategies include dumping iron into the oceans to suck up carbon.

The panel stated unequivocally that reducing carbon emissions was indeed the preferred method to address climate change. Transitioning to clean energy and replanting forests would offer much safer options, the latter of which is an age-old and well-understood method of carbon capture and storage.

Still, despite the National Academy concluding that albedo modification is unacceptably risky at this time, the panel called for more research into the subject.

What is disconcerting about such geoengineering schemes is that they could probably be attempted using today’s technology and not require significant breakthrough advances. They are likely to be significantly cheaper than carbon capture and sequestration, the other major approach to geoengineering explored by the National Academy report.

Moreover, unilateral “albedo modification” could spark geopolitical conflict, especially in the absence of international laws put in place. The Daily Mail reported that the CIA is possibly looking into how geoengineering might be used to “weaponize” the weather.

Another challenge with geoengineering is that it provides a highly tempting alternative to emissions reductions – a technological “fix” to one of the greatest threats of our time. Not only are people more likely to prefer technological solutions to the economic sacrifice that would accompany tight limits on carbon emissions, but new evidence suggests that people are much less likely to even accept the very science of climate change without such a techno-engineering fix. Related: Strategic Thinking: How to Think About the Future

A separate study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science found that people who are ideologically attracted to individualism and free markets are much more likely to accept climate change on its face if it is presented in conjunction with a geoengineering solution. However, if the problem of climate change is broached along with a call for strict limits on emissions instead of geoengineering, people with an individualistic outlook are more likely to reject the science of climate change altogether.

Such findings could boost momentum for geoengineering research to the detriment of carbon mitigation (although that is perhaps up for debate). And for climate-skeptic politicians, for whom denying climate change science is becoming a growing liability, geoengineering could provide a way out of their predicament. It offers the option of “having our cake and eating it too,” as Clive Hamilton, an Australian public ethics professor, phrased it in an interview with The Guardian.

Even worse, the longer the world waits to reduce the rate at which it burns fossil fuels, the more likely that governments will view geoengineering as the only option remaining to combat catastrophic effects of climate change.


By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • David Hrivnak on March 01 2015 said:
    Geo-engineering scares me a lot, unless it is planting trees and whitening roofs and roads. There can be a lot of unintended consequences, which is what got us into the problem we now have. Fortunately alternatives are appearing. With rooftop solar and electric vehicles we have cleaner and as I am finding, out cheaper alternatives.
  • Tim Bilsky on March 02 2015 said:
    Define the term and prove the "catastrophic effects of climate change" and I'll re-consider your argument. Here in PA, where we've suffered -10 temps the past two winter seasons, I could use some warming. The climate's always going to change, Mr. Cunningham, that's what it does. There's no need to stop it and it's foolish to think humans can. Humanity obviously has endured several epochs of "climate change" and somehow survived. Why is it different now? This is the old argument, "this time, it's the big one, and something must be done now!" I won't soon forget the honorable Dr. Michael Mann's doctored hockey stick chart. Fool me once (I wasn't the first time), shame on me.
  • John Robinson on March 02 2015 said:
    Being a part time practitioner of the "Dull Science" I'm frankly more interested in resources that investigate the economic impacts of CO2 remediation policies on local, state, and national economies. Germany is a terrific resource insofar as they have initiated an aggressive program, "Energiewende", to combat Anthropogenic Global Warming. A white paper "Development Integration Of Renewable Energy: Lessons Learned From Germany” addresses my area of interest. This paper presents an in depth assessment of the Unintended Consequences of Germany’s “Energiewende” policies. In Economics "Externalities" often result in unintended consequences which may be either positive or negative.

    The authors of this white paper would like to state that they fully support renewables as a part of the overall power portfolio. All the authors have worked with both electric utilities and purely renewable companies. Some of them have 20+ years of experience in the power sector, and a couple have direct equity interests in renewable projects.

    "Large penetration of renewable energy has not only translated into higher costs for the economy, it is also having profound effects on wholesale electricity markets that could ultimately result in a deterioration of the country’s reliability. Subsidized renewables have dispatch priority over thermal generators and come first in the market’s merit order, thus depressing wholesale prices to levels that are making thermal plants uneconomical. At the same time, increasing amounts of renewables require increasing amounts of back-up and balancing power that only thermal plants can provide. The implications of these developments for reliability are evident." The problem is that prior to the introduction of utility scale renewables the wholesale market was orderly. The subsidized renewables impact on the wholesale market is destabilizing causing the thermal generators to become unprofitable and no longer viable. Ironically Utility Scale Renewables need the thermal producers to exist due to the intermittency of power production. http://www.finadvice.ch/files/germany_lessonslearned_final_071014.pdf

    From the Table of Contents

    Enormous governmental subsidies for renewables
    Ever increasing power prices to residential customers
    Impact on national competitiveness
    Financial impact to thermal generators and reliability
    Impact of renewables’ variability on market operations and thermal plants
    Expansion and additional investment in the power grid
    Repeated redesigns and boom and bust cycles
  • Ahjuma on May 04 2015 said:
    Seems there is little mentioned about which layers of atmosphere the 32bt is deposited as well as the relevance. The commercial jet age is 40 years in an expansion, the US alone boasts 5000 planes in flight at any time; the products of combustion accumulating in the stratosphere. Of those products, water vapor is significant, and water vapor is a very effective ghg.
    I seek an explanation as to how building and launching more aircraft, extracting, refining and transporting of potential geoengineering chemicals to disperse from these aircraft could possibly be of greater ecological benefit. Sounds like a ruse generated by a culture that regards science as religion, a religion bent on ignoring 'externalities' within a closed system!

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