Geo-en­gi­neer­ing un­der de­bate

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The sim­pler geo-en­gi­neer­ing meth­ods of plant­ing ar­ti­fi­cial trees and get­ting cool roofs are cur­rently in prac­tice by the gen­eral pop­u­lace, but sci­en­tists are en­gaged in as­sess­ing big­ger tech­no­log­i­cal fixes for a world­wide en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter. These geo-en­gi­neer­ing meth­ods in­clude pump­ing sul­fur diox­ide into the at­mos­phere or seed­ing clouds to re­flect more sun­light, and dump­ing iron into the oceans to en­cour­age the growth of plank­ton, that sucks car­bon diox­ide from the air and con­verts it to biomass. Geo­engi­neer­ing in­cludes all tech­niques that aim to de­lib­er­ately ma­nip­u­late the Earth’s cli­mate to coun­ter­act the ef­fects of global warm­ing from green­house gas emis­sions.

Bury­ing char­coal, paint­ing streets and roofs white on a vast scale, con­struc­tion of heat-re­sis­tant build­ings and per­sonal pro­tec­tion are meth­ods which still do not face much op­po­si­tion. But the plans of spray­ing sea water into clouds so that they re­flect more sun­light away from the earth, blast­ing sul­phate aerosols into the strato­sphere to re­flect sun­light to­wards space; de­posit­ing mas­sive quan­ti­ties of iron fil­ings into the oceans; bio­engi­neer­ing crops to give them a lighter colour to re­flect sun­light; and sup­press­ing cir­rus clouds, are all re­ceiv­ing much crit­i­cism and thus these tech­niques re­main only a the­ory with an in­tense de­bate over the risk fac­tors.

The fear over in­ter­fer­ence in na­ture’s pro­ce­dures can be an­a­lyzed by the ex­am­ple that a but­ter­fly flap­ping its wings in Cal­i­for­nia shoves air cur­rents around the world past a tip­ping point, to gen­er­ate a mon­soon in Asia. There­fore any at­tempt to con­trol the cli­mate may im­pact the en­tire globe and not just a sin­gle re­gion. Sup­pos­edly the ex­cel­lent geo-en­gi­neer­ing sim­u­la­tions may pro­duce good re­sults in one part of the world while drought and famine in the other. As such, how can a co­her­ence in poli­cies be achieved? As is ev­i­dent by the meet­ings of the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel of Cli­mate Change ( IPCC), the ma­jor con­cerns have been over who should de­cide what kind of geo­engi­neer­ing should take place and which are the most ap­pro­pri­ate ways to reg­u­late and mon­i­tor them?

The in­jec­tion of car­bon diox­ide into the ocean rather than un­der ground, in­volves le­gal con­cerns re­lated to dump­ing con­ven­tions and Sea Law and also the li­a­bil­ity con­cerns from ef­fect on fish­eries. In case of in­ten­sive forestry to cap­ture car­bon in har­vested trees, there are po­lit­i­cal ques­tions over whose land is used and how to di­vide costs? Fur­ther, by ob­tain­ing so­lar shields, there are con­cerns of se­cu­rity, eq­uity and li­a­bil­ity if the sys­tem is used for weather con­trol.

Sim­i­larly, the re­lease of sul­phate par­ti­cles in the earth’s strato­sphere may be­come the cause of ozone de­ple­tion and also raise con­cerns of sovereignty as it may have a di­rect im­pact on re­gions. Some projects might, if they work, un­in­ten­tion­ally change weather pat­terns and pos­si­bly af­fect farm­ing and liveli­hoods in some of the most vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas in the world. There may be un­in­tended cli­matic con­se­quences, such as changes to the hy­dro­log­i­cal cy­cle in­clud­ing droughts or floods, caused by geo­engi­neer­ing tech­niques, but pos­si­bly not pre­dicted by the mod­els used to plan them. Such ef­fects may be cu­mu­la­tive or chaotic in na­ture, mak­ing pre­dic­tion and con­trol very dif­fi­cult.

Ex­perts there­fore con­demn the cose­quences of geo­engi­neer­ing and crit­i­cize the con­tin­u­a­tion to sup­port and sub­si­dize high emis­sions from in­dus­trial agri­cul­ture and the fail­ure of the gov­ern­ments to sup­port small-scale sus­tain­able farm­ing. They also lament the fail­ure of the global economies to reach an agree­ment for the next com­mit­ment pe­riod of the Ky­oto pro­to­col. Sub­si­diza­tion of fos­sil fuel ex­trac­tion and au­tho­riza­tion of new coal plants as they are all de­bat­able fac­tors be­tween the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, sci­en­tists and gov­ern­ments. The de­bate con­tin­ues that why all this fa­tal­ism, when en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists are pro­vid­ing proven, demo­cratic and no-risk so­lu­tions to pro­tect our bio­di­ver­sity?

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