A Quick Fix for Global Warming?

By Isobel Whitcomb '17
Environmental Columnist

What if I told you that right now, scientists are researching a solution to global warming? And no, I’m not talking about the painstaking process of cutting emissions. I’m talking about a climate fix. The fix I am talking about is called geoengineering and is defined as the large-scale human manipulation of the earth’s natural processes in an effort to counteract global warming.
Solutions proposed include mimicking the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption by releasing sulfate particles into the atmosphere, increasing cloud cover, fertilizing the oceans in order to boost populations of carbon fixing microbes and burying atmospheric carbon dioxide deep underground. Other solutions proposed vary from plausible to sounding like something straight out of a science fiction movie. (I’m thinking, in particular, of one group’s proposal to launch hundreds of tiny mirrored satellites into space in hopes of reflecting the sun’s rays.) Each of these projects has the potential to bring temperatures back down to where they were at the beginning of the 20th century.

Whether you feel skeptical or frightened, excited or intrigued, I would bet a lot of money that if you are even a little concerned about the future of our climate, you just felt a tiny spark of hope at the thought that a solution could exist.

Hope is a natural response to the idea of a quick fix when we are attempting to deal with a situation that is beginning to feel more and more desperate. Perhaps the scariest part of our generation’s greatest environmental crisis is how helpless we all feel. We are told over and over again to take shorter showers, turn off the lights, unplug devices when they are not in use. But deep down, most of us know that there are far greater factors at play in global warming than the energy wasted by ordinary citizens. If individuals have a hard time making small changes, how are corporations like Shell and Tyson going to change the destructive practices that currently provide jobs to thousands of Americans? How is a concerned individual supposed to even begin to affect our deeply seated culture of consumerism and our capitalistic economy? It is this sense of great helplessness that makes us vulnerable to placing our hopes in quick fixes.

Why use the word vulnerable? After all, isn’t a solution to the climate crisis a good thing? I use the word vulnerable because the ideas proposed by geoengineering all could carry disastrous consequences for both the environment and human health. While enacting “Plan B” could buy us substantially more time in our race to lower emissions (“Plan A”), if geoengineering were to fail, it could actually spark a negative feedback loop that would cause sudden and drastic warming effects of the planet. But ignoring the potential consequences, let’s imagine a scenario where “Plan B” works. Would we actually use the opportunity to lower emissions? Unfortunately, the answer is most likely “No.” Climate skeptics and dirty companies are getting behind geoengineering because they see it as a replacement for cutting emissions. According to Newt Gingrich, “instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we … have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific invention. Bring on the American ingenuity.”

As our understanding of climate change deepens, one fact is becoming clear: a sustainable solution to the crisis at hand depends on system change. Geoengineering is hazardous not only because it could potentially encourage global warming, but because it would allow us to preserve the existing system. As we consider possible solutions to climate change, we should be cautious in our discussion of geoengineering as a “quick fix.” Instead, it must be discussed as a Hail Mary, a last resort. Instead of placing our hope in “Plan B” we should use our energy to pursue “Plan A.”