Environment

Can Crazy Techno Schemes Actually Save Us from Climate Change?

From blocking out the sun with "space shields" to fertilizing the oceans with carbon-consuming algae, will the magic of science save us?

Temperatures are rising, ice caps are melting, seas are swelling and if we don't do something soon (yesterday?), we're sure to find ourselves huddled together on a mountaintop in Utah, a little place we will lovingly refer to as "dry land."

As much as we all love island living, most of us would rather see our planet and civilization saved from the man-made catastrophe called global warming. There is no dearth of ideas floating around with regards to how to make this happen.

One wide-ranging approach involves the application of climate geo-engineering technologies, which aims, says climate scientists Tim Lenton and Naomi Vaughn of the U.K.'s Tyndall Center, "to rectify the Earth's current radiative imbalance." Cooling the world, that is, either by employing shiny materials and cloud cover to reflect away sunlight, or by locking up greenhouse gases so they can't release into the atmosphere.

There is something attractive about this approach to solving the climate crisis -- it's high-tech, and it means that we don't have to focus on the real problem: our embarrassingly oversized output of greenhouse gases. Rather than cutting back our energy use, putting an end to carbon-emitting energy production and raising the bar for energy efficiency and generation as a whole, climate geo-engineering proposes to focus on the symptoms of our sickly energy system. Keep the greenhouse gases flowing -- we can sweep them up later, and in the meantime cool the planet with the magic of science.

There are some real gems that have emerged from geo-engineering research. Albedo modification, for example, involves increasing the reflectivity of the earth's surface. The proposed methods for increasing the Earth's albedo range from simple projects like painting roofs and roads white, to more grandiose schemes like stretching massive sheets of reflective material across the world's deserts and a University of California, Irvine plan to cultivate giant monocultures of shiny crops. Blocking out the sun is another popular idea, and scientists have proposed doing so by injecting water vapor or sulphate aerosol clouds into the atmosphere, or simply launching massive arrays of "space shields" into the stratosphere.

In the carbon-sequestration category you'll find the more traditional practice of reforestation, as well as efforts to fertilize the ocean with iron in order to promote the growth of carbon-consuming plankton and algae. Researchers in Washington and California have come up with a new idea that involves baling up crop residue (like corn and wheat stalks) and sinking them in the ocean, and green investor Vinod Khosla has been pouring millions into a newfangled "Calera" cement made of carbon captured from the CO2-emitting power plants.

Clearly, there are environmental consequences and huge financial costs that come along with most of these methods, and carrying out a large-scale geo-engineering effort is an unlikely prospect. But the scientific community is still enamored with the idea of taking this rather godlike approach to mitigating climate change.

And there is a good reason why: some of these plans -- though not yet technologically feasible -- might actually work. It has been calculated that stratospheric aerosol injections, for example, have the potential to make a real difference in balancing out the impact of CO2's radiative effects, and Calera cement, if adopted by the construction industry, promises to pull billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, counteracting the emissions produced to make conventional cement.

But despite their willingness to invest brainpower in the exploration of geo-engineering options, most scientists agree that the climate crisis cannot be solved with climate geo-engineering alone, and that putting an end to global warming begins with dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A survey published by the Independentshowed that over half of 80 "international specialists in climate science" agree that geo-engineering is viable only as a "backup plan" for addressing climate change.

The biggest proponents of geo-engineering as a central approach to addressing climate change are those for whom cutting emissions is simply not an option: coal-burning energy providers.

Band-Aids for Smoke Stacks

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is a technology that has been widely endorsed by the coal industry and politicians, and although it is not always categorized under the umbrella of geo-engineering, it does bear similarity to other geo-engineering approaches. The theory is that coal plants will catch emissions before they enter the atmosphere, and then pump them into old mine shafts, other subterranean chambers or turn the CO2 into carbonic acid and lock it in a solid form (like cement) to keep it out of the air.

Underground sequestration of CO2 has successfully been tested, however no coal plants have yet been able to capture CO2 on a commercial scale. The Associated Press recently reported that five plants in the U.S. and Canada are currently "studying the feasibility" of carbon-capture retrofits for existing coal plants, and the Swedish energy company Vattenfall has managed to capture most of the CO2 from a relatively small coal plant, but as of yet the commercial application of CCS simply does not exist.

Although sequestration of coal-plant emissions has not yet been successfully implemented, coal industry supporters indicate that CCS has an important role to play in mitigating global climate change. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama frequently brought up the promise of "clean coal" through capture and sequestration, and the stimulus package put forward by the House of Representatives in January sets aside $2.4 billion for "necessary expenses to demonstrate carbon capture and sequestration technologies."

The Senate's version of the bill nearly doubles appropriations for clean coal, most of which will go toward capture and sequestration research and development. It is questionable how much stimulus this allocation will yield, considering coal mining now employs fewer people than the U.S. wind industry, but coal-burning energy utilities are certain to enjoy the bonus on top of their already soaring profits. What is clear is that the current administration is set on financing the coal energy sector's belated attempt to bandage up its carbon emissions, rather than allocating all resources to renewable technologies that emit nothing but energy.

Sinks, Bathtubs and Bailing Buckets

Traditionally, those of us who emitted carbon dioxide could rely on natural carbon sinks -- trees, soil and the ocean -- to absorb our waste and keep it out of the atmosphere. These days, our carbon sinks are all full-up, and New York Timesblogger Andrew Revkin says our carbon sequestration capacity now resembles "a bathtub with a partially opened drain." The gases are flowing out of the faucet, but the drain can't keep up, and the bath is overflowing. Unfortunately, our "bathtub" doesn't overflow into anything -- gases just build up in higher concentrations at an accelerating rate, trapping more and more heat in the atmosphere.

Proponents of geologic carbon sequestration seek to address the overflowing bathtub by employing a bailing bucket -- just pump the extra CO2 into a hole in the ground. Employing other climate geo-engineering methods is akin to using a mop to clean up the water once it's already spilled all over the floor. But reason is calling: if the bath is overflowing, turn off the tap.

There's no doubt that some of the more ecologically benign geo-engineering options like white roofs and bio char have a small role to play in addressing the climate problem. But no one can deny that delving into a large-scale geo-engineering project would be too expensive and ecologically devastating to justify. While carbon capture and other geo-engineering technologies may be in our future, practical, plausible approaches like carbon and gas taxes, renewable energy technology and widespread conservation initiatives are already here.

Investing time, science and money into new climate geo-engineering and CCS technologies is a waste and a distraction. It's not easy to wean ourselves off  fossil fuels -- we've got a King Kong-sized monkey on our back, and we're going to have to adopt a wide range of changes in order to get it off. But it's even harder to pour resources into far-off technologies as our bathtub fills up, overflows and floods America's coastlines. Cutting and eventually eliminating all carbon-emitting energy sources is the best and ultimately only option -- it's time to stop tinkering with high-tech distractions.

Gwen Schantz is a freelance writer and environmental consultant based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her background is in sustainable food and agriculture, water conservation and international sustainable development, and she has lived and worked in West Africa and Southeast Asia. Gwen has a bachelor's degree in International Studies from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
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