Why it is time for the world to take geoengineering seriously

Goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels will probably be breached

Global greenhouse gas emissions will have to drop 45 per cent by 2030. AP
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It’s often a mystery where the supervillains in James Bond films got their start to build up the enormous secret bases and hordes of minions they deploy to conquer the world.

Perhaps they did what Luke Iseman did in Baja California last April: with Amazon and a credit card, he got the equipment to make himself into “Greenfinger”.

Climate change is lurching forward into more perilous territory. Last year was already 0.89 degrees Celsius above the historic average.

The goal of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels will probably be breached temporarily this decade, and be out of reach entirely by its end.

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FILE - People arrive at a displacement camp on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, on Sept.  21, 2022.  In many Middle Eastern and African nations, climatic shocks killed hundreds and displaced thousands every year, causing worsening food shortages.  With limited resources, they also are among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to climate change impacts.  (AP Photo / Jerome Delay, File)

A series of UN conferences, major advances in renewable energy, campaigns against fossil-fuel production, a once-in-a-century pandemic, and a big war and heavy sanctions on a leading hydrocarbon exporter have not stopped greenhouse gas emissions from rising.

But they have to drop an inconceivable 45 per cent by 2030 on 2010 levels.

There is nothing magical about the 1.5ºC target: 1.4 degrees would be better, 1.6 degrees worse and 1.7 degrees worse still.

Every increase brings more damage and disruption, and a greater chance of inadvertently passing a climatic tipping point, such as the collapse of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets, eventually raising global sea levels by three to four metres.

Political and economic tipping points may be even closer: the disruption of a populous country by flood or drought, or a wider war, bringing unimaginable suffering and migration.

Even the 1.5ºC scenarios include huge removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — by reforestation, or by trapping the gas directly from the atmosphere and injecting it underground or turning it into solid minerals.

Adnoc recently announced a pilot project to do just this in Fujairah.

Several promising technologies are emerging. But they remain costly and scaling up to extract the necessary billions of tonnes each year will be a colossal effort.

Worse still, some of the warming from greenhouse gases has been masked by fine particles — aerosols — from human activity, including dust and sulphur from burning coal and oil.

These reflect sunlight. As we clean up air pollution, the local environment and human health improves, but paradoxically the climate problem gets worse.

A similar natural phenomenon occurs with some big volcanic eruptions, mostly famously the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991, which sent huge amounts of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere.

Scientists proposed as far back as 1974 that we could do the same.

Quite small quantities of sulphate or other particles could be released into the upper atmosphere by plane, rocket or balloon.

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Harvard University's Dr David Keith, who has been active in the field since 2007, suggests it could cost as little as $1 billion per year.

That compares to the $178 trillion cost of unchecked climate change to the global economy over the next half century, or the trillions of annual investment required for the new green economy.

David Victor, a specialist in climate international relations, observed in 2008 that, “A lone Greenfinger, self-appointed protector of the planet and working with a small fraction of the Gates bank account, could force a lot of geoengineering on his own”.

This is where Mr Iseman comes in. In April, he released two helium balloons containing a few grams of sulphur dioxide from Mexico, expecting that at altitude they would burst and release their payload.

In October, he incorporated Make Sunsets, a company offering to sell “cooling credits”, which planned to make further launches this month.

His action has attracted criticism from those in the field. They rightly point out that his experiment was scientifically worthless — it carried no monitoring equipment and nobody knew if it reached the stratosphere or functioned as intended.

They worry that lone actors will give the field a bad name, forestalling the careful public debate and government regulation that should precede any large-scale geoengineering.

Releasing cooling particles can have other consequences, in particular, altering rainfall patterns.

It does not reduce the level of carbon dioxide, and so does not stop ocean acidification, which damages coral reefs and other marine life.

If we began a large-scale effort to manage solar radiation, then had to stop, warming would resume abruptly, a scenario explored in Neal Stephenson’s 2021 novel Termination Shock.

Inevitably, academics point cautiously to these risks and call for more research. Environmentalists furiously oppose “geoengineering”, considering it a seductively easy, dangerous cop-out from the hard, trillion-dollar work of a building a green economy.

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They point to “moral hazard” — the lure of a simple fix prevents action on reducing emissions today.

But compared to putting a few million tonnes of sulphates into the air, which rain out within months to three years, we are currently carelessly conducting a geophysical experiment on a far vaster scale: putting 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually into the atmosphere, which will remain there for millennia.

No one seriously suggests giving up on low-carbon options such as wind and solar power in favour of massive geoengineering.

And contrary to the moral hazard concept, we are collectively not doing nearly enough today despite all the scientific consensus of impending disaster.

If we pass a tipping point and see a rapid climatic deterioration, hasty geoengineering may be essential — it would be wise to be prepared.

If environmentalists believe — correctly — that even 1.5 degrees of warming is dangerous, they should support a combination of deploying low-carbon technologies and careful solar radiation management to cut overall warming to 1ºC or less.

This would buy time for carbon dioxide removal over several decades to return the atmosphere to an agreed state.

Mr Iseman’s action is provocative, even irresponsible.

But maybe that is what the climate field needs. It is not an either/or: we require massive deployment of green technologies, huge efforts on carbon dioxide removal and a sensible, calibrated level of solar radiation management to make up for our wasted decades.

If we don’t want our climate future determined by freelance “Greenfingers”, it’s time for environmentalists, governments and society to take geoengineering seriously.

Robin M. Mills is the chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

Updated: January 30, 2023, 3:00 AM