“We are getting into very risky territory,” said Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, last week. But she acknowledged that we may have to go there anyway.
She was talking about geo-engineering, the manipulation of the world’s climate to avoid catastrophic warming. Nobody actually wants to do that, because we don’t understand the climate system well enough to foresee all the possible side-effects. But a large number of people think that in the end we’ll have to do it anyway, because we’re not going to get the warming under control in time without it.
Geo-engineering might involve putting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (to reflect some incoming sunlight), spraying fine droplets of seawater into low-lying marine clouds to thicken them up (and reflect more sunlight), or painting the world’s roads and roofs white. There are also proposed techniques for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for slowing the acidification of the oceans. In fact, there are dozens of proposals in all.
The topic is now on the table because 60 scientific experts are meeting in Peru on June 20 to begin an exploration of geo-engineering options that will probably end up in the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014. This has caused outrage in some sections of the environmental movement and 125 organizations wrote an open letter to the IPCC head, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, condemning the whole concept.
“The IPCC … must take great care not to squander its credibility on geo-engineering, a topic that is gathering steam precisely when there is no real progress on mitigation and adaptation,” said the letter. “International peasant organizations, indigenous peoples, and social movements have all expressed outright opposition to such measures as a false solution to the climate crisis.”
There has been a remarkable reversal of roles in environmental issues over the past century. The old left loved industry, modernity, man “conquering” nature, whereas the old right believed in tradition, conservation and preserving nature. The new left, or large parts of it, hugs trees and romanticises peasants, while the new right, at least in the United States, denies climate change outright.
They are both wrong, and it is not an ideological issue at all. The problem the scientists see, and many other people too, is that an industrializing world of 7 billion people poses a grave threat to the very environment it depends on, notably in terms of changing the climate.
Ending greenhouse gas emissions, reducing population and adopting sustainable patterns of consumption are the necessary long-term responses to the threat of runaway warming, but they are not happening fast enough to avoid catastrophic changes and mass death. At the moment, in fact, they are not happening at all. So we had better come up with some stopgap measures that give us more time to make the long-term changes.
That is what geo-engineering is about: holding the global average temperature increase below the tipping point at 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit after which we get runaway heating, while we work frantically to get our emissions down and restore the self-regulating, comfortable climate that we have already destabilized. We have not yet begun to work on that agenda seriously, let alone frantically.
On our current course, according a study released by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research 18 months ago, the average global temperature will be 7 degrees higher by 2060. If that happens, billions will probably die. If it stays below 3.5 degrees hotter, on the other hand, most of them will probably live.
So do the research on geo-engineering now: what works, what doesn’t; what are the side-effects? Do it on a small scale, in local areas, as safely as possible. Because when we are passing through plus-3.5 degrees and the famines are spreading, there will be overwhelming demands to do something now to halt the warming.
At that point, we had better already know the answers to those questions, because the technologies will then be deployed, ready or not.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries. An updated version of his book “Climate Wars” was published recently in the United States by Oneworld.