Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Geoengineering is a very broad topic – in fact, no one group of people can actually agree what the word actually encompasses. One thing for sure, however: the word carries with it a lot of emotion already, not unlike Fracking.

Q: What is geoengineering and why do people say it is bad?
- Byron S.
The term “geoengineering” (or environmental engineering, depending on who you are listening to) can encompass a lot of very different things: 
  • Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE). This experiment this Spring in the Europe envisioned injecting water into the atmosphere at a 1-kilometer altitude. However, there have been proposals to inject vast quantities of sulfates into the stratosphere to reduce global warming. The theory underlying these is that Mt Pinatubo already did this in 1993 – and lowered the Earth’s average temperature by more than a degree C for two years.
  • Injecting large volumes of iron sulfates into the Southern Ocean in 2009. This was done to test a theory that adding iron to the ocean would encourage phytoplankton growth, leading to an increase in zooplankton growth with concomitant oxygen release and carbon dioxide sequestration all at the same time. The fear, of course, was that the exercise would trigger a massive, toxic algal bloom.
  • Injecting water from a hose maintained at a 1-kilometer altitude to test if this could cause more reflectance of solar radiation, and thereby reduce global warming effects.
  • All the Walmart parking lots in the world contribute to large-scale diversion of water from the Earth and unusual absorption of solar radiation, creating unnatural microclimates (“heat islands”) that will affect local and even regional weather. In fact, one can watch any local regional weather radar, and readily see that clouds will often form donut holes over large, paved metro areas like Portland, OR.
  • Groundwater depletion and other anthropogenic (man made) changes in terrestrial water usage were responsible for about 42% of the 8-cm rise in global sea level observed between 1961 and 2003.
  • Ethinyl Estradiol (EE2) is the active ingredient in birth-control pills. More than 100 million women worldwide use contraceptive pills, and the products make their way through waste-water treatment systems into rivers and lakes, where they have caused widespread disruption of aquatic environments. It has done this by disrupting endocrine systems in wildlife (for example, irreversible development of eggs in the testes of male fish, a condition called “intersex”). EE2 introduced into a Canadian lake in 2001, at a level of only 5 parts per trillion, caused the population of one fish species to completely collapse.

There are other potential kinds of geoengineering, limited only by the creativity of people who worry about the Earth we live on - and who DON’T worry about where funding for their proposals might possibly come from.

These mega-scale engineering changes all sound like good ideas – they promise potentially great (and highly leveraged) rewards. The problem with geoengineering, according to a lot of people, is that if we play with our ecosystem on broad scales like these, we can never be sure of the consequences.  We may very well, with the best of intentions, create a spiraling-out-of-control disaster. We could just be asking for it.

An extreme example of this fear was the concern that when the Large Hadron Collider in Europe went online, its huge particle beams would create a tiny Black Hole - that would burrow to the center of the Earth and destroy our planet from inside out. The most compelling argument against this, of course, is that far greater particle energies are generated daily in our upper stratosphere by cosmic rays… without any noticeable harm having been done over the past 4.5 billion years or so.

Another example of mega-scale engineering is the massive use of DDT to solve a perceived insect problem – to save crops and mitigate human disease by eliminating dangerous insect vectors. We now know, of course, that the extensive use of DDT did solve, at least temporarily, some crop and human disease problems. However, it had huge unforeseen downrange consequences like plummeting bird populations and possible birth defects.

Some people might call the massive use of antibiotics another example of a well-intended global effort to deal with a human problem – but one that has in fact led to a growing disaster. We now see explosive growth of Multiply-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA, or the terrifying “flesh-eating bacteria” increasingly in the news). Indiscriminate antibiotic use has also led to a world-wide resurrection of resistant tuberculosis, Bubonic Plague, and other once-curable diseases.

Perhaps even more terrifying is the research into genetic engineering: what if something unforeseen gets loose into the world’s environment, with disastrous and irreversible consequences, like Zebra Mussels, lampreys, and Asian Carp getting into the Great Lakes? Or Kudzu being introduced into the southeastern US? Or Africanized bees introduced into the Western Hemisphere? Or cases of incurable cerebral malaria exploding in areas where unregulated hydraulic mining is rampant?

In 2010, a gathering in Oxford, UK, came up with some guiding principles for geoengineering:
-          Geoengineering should be regulated as a public good
-          There should be public participation in decision-making
-          Research should be openly published
-          There should be independent assessments of potential impacts
-          Decisions to deploy any new technology should be managed within a “robust governance framework.”

All of these principles sound great – but are terminally vague. Furthermore, they will probably never be implemented on an international scale. It takes just one nation ignoring the International guidelines on something as far-reaching (and frontier-crossing) as geoengineering to abrogate the whole effort for the rest of the international community.

If there is a lesson here from the pesticides, antibiotics, and biological introductions, it is that nothing is consequence-free. However, many people feel that they are forced to just stand by and helplessly watch things unfold - decisions made by just a few people. That may be why there are such vociferous demonstrations to something as innocuous-sounding as SPICE.

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