Geoengineering is the act of artificially engineering the climate of a planet. In the future, we could potentially use geoengineering techniques to turn Mars into a fully habitable planet, enabling a Martian civilisation to bloom. But geoengineering seems set to be far more helpful on Earth, where it can be used to mitigate or even reverse the effects of climate change and overt the pending climate cataclysm. However, these techniques are experimental and unproven, making many denounce their use. But, A few days ago, the European Commission (part of the EU) called for talks at the highest international level to research and consider the risks posed by geoengineering our way out of climate change. While this seems like a good news story, it’s actually a warning of things to come. But why?
Let’s start with what the EU is really looking into. The geoengineering technique that they are particularly interested in is Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI). This method aims to replicate the climate cooling effects of volcanoes. Let me explain.
In 1980, Mt St Helens erupted and spewed out 490 billion tonnes of ash. 0.03% of this ash was sulphate. Sulphate is sulphur combined with four oxygens atoms, it can take many forms, but when thrown out of a volcano, it is in particulate form. The particulates are small enough and light enough to stay airborne for months, maybe even years. But these particulates are highly reflective, so while they drift through our atmosphere, they reduce the amount of sunlight hitting Earth’s surface.
Now, the greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide relies on sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. You see, carbon dioxide is fully transparent to visible light but is opaque to infrared light. So, when sunlight passes through the atmosphere, it reaches the Earth’s surface unimpeded; this light is then absorbed by the ground, which heats up. When objects heat up, they radiate out this energy in a process known as black body radiation, and when the Earth’s surface does this, it this radiation as infrared light. This infrared light is then absorbed by the atmospheric carbon dioxide, which heats it up and effectively traps the solar radiation in our atmosphere, heating it up and causing climate change.
But, volcanoes’ sulphate reduces the amount of light reaching the Earth’s surface, and because they are so reflective, they don’t heat up and emit infrared. This is why the sulphate released by the Mt. St Helens eruption cooled the entire planet by 0.1 degrees Celsius for a few months.
SAI aims to replicate this by using planes and/or rockets to inject sulphate particulates (also known as aerosols) into the upper atmosphere, cool the planet, and offset climate change. But to fully offset 2 degrees Celsius of warming, we would need to inject 40 million tonnes of sulphate into the atmosphere! That is the same weight as 80 Burj Khalifas!
But this protective blanket won’t last for long. Sulphate is slightly soluble, meaning over time, it will dissolve into the clouds and form sulphuric acid, which then falls to Earth as acid rain. This means that if we want to continue to offset 2 degrees of global warming, we would need to inject the atmosphere with 40 million tonnes of sulphates every year!
Okay, so what are the risks?
Well, there are questions about how much ecological damage will be caused by the mining of this much sulphate and the associated emissions of planes and/or rockets to get it into the atmosphere. But these issues are piddly compared to some of the other potential risks, namely: ecological stressors, heightened risks of nuclear war, tightening coupling of global ecological, economic, and political systems and the risk of a snap-back scenario.
Let’s start with the most apparent, ecological stressors. Acid rain is already a significant problem; it can and has literally decimated entire ecosystems by killing off plants and rendering soils hostile. Yet, we aren’t pumping that much sulphates into the atmosphere. But if we use SAI, the levels of acid rain could become catastrophic! Combine this with the fact that the growth rate of plants will be restricted as there is less sunlight and less photosynthesis, and you have a recipe for disaster. Under SAI, entire ecosystems could struggle or even entirely collapse, and farming output could shrink drastically. Both can lead to extensive famines and massive loss of human life.
Then there is the fact that SAI will make nuclear war worse. You see, just like a volcano, a nuclear weapon pumps the atmosphere full of sunlight-blocking particles that reduce the levels of sunlight reaching the surface. This means that in a nuclear war, where countries chunk at each other for weeks or maybe even months at a time, the same cooling effect as SAI happens but to a much greater effect, leading to what is known as a nuclear winter. The effect is far worse if a nuclear winter happens while SAI is being used. SAI will block out what little light can reach the Earth, making it even colder and more deadly. What’s more, as SAI particulates fly higher than nuclear weapon particulates, and light acts to break down these nuclear particulates, SAI could make nuclear winters last longer.
Now, five years ago, I wouldn’t have said this was a problem. But with what is happening with Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, the possibility of a nuclear war is now firmly back on the table.
This brings me to SAI tightening the coupling of global ecological, economic, and political systems. You see, while SAI will cool the entire globe, its adverse effects will be felt in some places more than most, and the expense of continual operation (which will likely cost tens of billions per year) likely won’t be equally paid for by different countries. This means that SAI has the potential to cause massive international tensions and link distant and opposing governments together incredibly tightly. With the current geopolitical climate in mind, this is a recipe for utter disaster.
Speaking of disaster, SAI can potentially cause a deadly snap-back scenario. You see, if we just use SAI to mitigate climate change and don’t actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then the potential for sudden catastrophic climate change is possible. This scenario is very easy to picture; we start using SAI, and because climate change is being mitigated, the progress on carbon capture and low carbon energy slows as this saves money. Then, due to international tensions about the knock-on effects and cost, the SAI program falters and then stops. A year later and the sulphate blanket that keeps the Earth cool is gone, and there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than when we started using SAI. Over the next few years, the Earth heats at a rate it has never seen before, and cataclysmic sudden climate change grips the planet.
Make no mistake; this snap-back scenario could be the most deadly risk of SAI. Such rapid global warming would be akin to A Day After Tomorrow, and many ecosystems and even some countries will never recover from it.
While we don’t yet know the exact extent of all of these risks, the scientific consensus is that SAI will be an extremely detrimental way to combat climate change. If that is the case, then why is the Eu looking into it?
Well, recent studies are suggesting that we are likely to experience 3 degrees Celsius of global warming. That is twice what we are targeting! This level of climate change will cause vast coastal flooding, prolonged droughts, intense and longer deadly heatwaves, snowstorms, fatal cold snaps, monsoon-like flooding and widespread ecological collapse, both marine and terrestrial. Millions will become climate refugees as their countries become uninhabitable, billions will go hungry as famines grip even the developed world, and millions could potentially perish.
While SAI has some significant risks and knock-on effects that will make life on our planet harder for us all, it is an effective way to cool the planet and avoid 3 degrees of global warming. So, the EU is looking into which route has the least risk and potential damages. Do we let the planet boil? Or intervene and cause a potentially less deadly catastrophe?
This is why this is a terrifying bit of news. We know that SAI is a damaging technology to use. The fact that the EU is even considering expending crucial time and money looking into whether it is potentially better than letting climate change bite shows how at risk we are from our self-made apocalypse. In a way, these talks and proposed research are an early warning bell, letting us know that the climate targets that would have kept us, our children and this beautiful planet safe might not be met. It’s time we either prepare for the worst, or we do something dramatic to save Earth.
Thanks for reading! Content like this doesn’t happen without your support. If you want to support content like this, or read articles early, go and follow me and my project Planet Earth And Beyond on www.PlanetEarthAndBeyond.co, Google News, Flipboard, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
- Originally published on Planet Earth & Beyond