Geoengineering proves poor solution to climate change

Gabby Sanchez

As Donald Trump’s presidency continues, it has become clear that acting for the benefit of the environment and the future human population is not in his or the Republican Party’s plans. After the undoing of Obama’s climate change policy last month, which includes the Clean Power Plan, scientists are looking for solutions outside of reducing carbon emissions, such as geoengineering. 

Geoengineering, as defined by the University of Oxford, is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. The two main types focus on the reduction of carbon emissions or the reduction of the sun’s energy that reaches Earth.

Last month, scientists and scholars from all of the world met at the Forum on U.S. Solar Geoengineering Research at Harvard to discuss the future of geoengineering and its ability to prevent the effects of climate change. One major plan falls under what is called solar geoengineering, which aims at reducing the amount of heat that reaches the earth through different forms of reflection. One discussed at the forum consists of spraying reflective particles into the air that would block some of the sun’s heat from reaching the Earth. The idea is to keep excessive amounts of heat from reaching the Earth, which will be a major force behind the dangers of climate change. 

One takeaway from the forum is that people believe we can invent and use our still-limited knowledge of science and our environment in order to make the problems we’ve created go away. This plan takes precarious decisions that are not fit to first test on Earth, but scientists have their sights set on doing so in places such as Arizona within the next year. Supporters of geoengineering may say that uncertainty is the nature of science, but when it comes to our entire planet and every living being on it, Earth’s not to be altered unless there’s a higher level of certainty of its short and long term effects. 

Also, many of these geoengineering programs have only been tested on a small scale and with modeling. While this may give researchers an idea of the effects, it does not provide detailed or certain explanations. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the past when it comes to the environment, it’s that we cannot know everything that will happen and nature holds many surprises that we cannot account for. The biggest one includes not knowing that burning fossil fuels over 200 years would cause the planet to heat up. 

Current solar geoengineering plans would not depend of the reduction of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. As soon as they terminated the spraying, the Earth would rapidly heat up, which means that we would need to do this forever, or continue working toward reduction. If this plan were to work, individuals and governments would feel less obligated to reduce their carbon emissions, which needs to remain at the forefront of dealing with climate change because it traps the heat in the atmosphere. Without reducing greenhouse gases such as carbon emissions, the threat of climate change will not decrease its intensity any time soon.  

Geoengineering may have its time and necessity, but it must rely on reduction of carbon as well as mitigating the effects of climate change. Projects cannot involve simply covering our carbon emissions like an air freshener covers a bad odor. All the energy in geoengineering programs needs to focus on solving the problem of high carbon emissions through removal, also known as carbon geoengineering. Some projects include afforestation, which is the wide scale planting of trees, or using a variety of methods to store carbon in the soil or ocean.  

Simply acting in the environment and altering it to cater to our needs and solve problems that we created without knowing the consequences could only lead to more problems in our future, which our earth cannot handle. While geoengineering is a very viable way to help alleviate climate change, it needs to move forward with caution and refrain from acting without certainty of the consequences. As a population we need to take a step back and reevaluate our methods when it comes to helping the environment. It is not something we are separated from and can act on without facing the effects. What happens to this earth affects every one of us, and it’s time that we start considering that.

Sanchez is a journalism freshman from Austin. Follow her on Twitter @narwhalieee.