Too late for talk? Cascio’s case for environmental geoengineering

Jamais Cascio crops up at no less a venue that the Wall Street Journal talking about climate change and geoengineering, and he’s getting less equivocal as the months slip by. Within the space of a year or so, geoengineering – large-scale projects designed to ameliorate or control the symptoms of climate change – has progressed from being an unpalatable worst-case option to an unpalatable necessity. To put it another way: either we act now, or we lose the opportunity to act at all.

In short, although we know what to do to stop global warming, we’re running out of time to do it and show no interest in moving faster. So here’s where geoengineering steps in: It gives us time to act.

That’s if it’s done wisely. It’s imperative that we increase funding for geoengineering research, building the kinds of models and simulations necessary to allow us to weed out the approaches with dangerous, surprising consequences.

Fortunately, the deployment of geoengineering need not be all or nothing. Though it would have the greatest impact if done globally, some models have shown that intervention just in the polar regions would be enough to hold off the most critical tipping-point events, including ice-cap collapse and a massive methane release.

Polar-only geoengineering strikes me as a plausible compromise position. It could be scaled up if the situation becomes more dire and could be easily shut down with minimal temperature spikes if there were unacceptable side effects.

Still, we can’t forget: Geoengineering is not a solution for global warming. It would simply hold temperatures down temporarily, doing nothing about the causes of climate change, let alone ocean acidification and other symptoms of a carbon overdose. We can’t let ourselves slip back into business-as-usual complacency, because we’d simply be setting ourselves up for a far greater disaster down the road.

Our overall goal must remain the reduction and then elimination of greenhouse-gas emissions as swiftly as humanly possible. This will require feats of political will and courage around the world. What geoengineering offers us is the time to make it happen.

I’ve been following Cascio’s writing since he was a columnist here at Futurismic a few years ago, and I’ve a great deal of respect for his thinking. That said, advocating geoengineering as a necessity alarms me considerably – not because I think it’s unnecessary, but because of the potential for messy side-effects, be they environmental or political.

But as Cascio points out, despite finally reaching a point where politics has acknowledged that climate change is a major issue, nothing is happening other than blame-laying and jockeying for advantage, and the opportunity to act is slipping away. Whether geoengineering is an easier pill for nation-states to swallow than emissions control and rational energy policies remains to be seen.

[ It should be obvious, but just in case: yes, this post and Cascio’s essay are predicated on the notion that anthropic climate change is not only supported by the bulk of pertinent scientific research but a very probable threat to our existence on a species-wide scale. I am aware that there are those who disagree with those statements, and those people are welcome to their opinions. However, anyone popping up in the comments to this post with no better a contribution than to say climate change is a {hoax/sham/conspiracy/Liberal plot/Illuminati plot} will have their comment removed. If you can’t join the debate on the debate’s own terms, please go find one where you can. Your cooperation is appreciated. ]

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