Geoengineering in 2019

The U.S. military used geoengineering during the Vietnam War, with unintended consequencesThe U.S. military used geoengineering during the Vietnam War, with unintended consequences. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, so, too, is the development of geoengineering solutions to mitigate our path to global scorching. But geoengineering is not new. The U.S. military weaponized rainfall during the Vietnam War with a cloud-seeding technique that sometimes included a chemical to induce acid rain. However, cloud-seeding techniques, very much in the mix of today’s geoengineering projects, do not allow for directing where subsequent rain will fall.

Other geoengineering techniques focus primarily on ways to reflect the sun’s energy back into space to keep Earth relatively cool, but if carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, ocean temperatures will rise and ocean acidification will worsen. Consequently, solar-focused geoengineering will not solve the rising threat of a warming, dying ocean.

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC warned there is no single solution to curb rising global temperatures. Alarmingly, the report indicated carbon dioxide removal must be part of the solution to prevent a temperature rise above 1.5 degrees. But such technology is nascent and, currently, cost prohibitive.

Proponents of various geoengineering methods, however, are optimistic, because geoengineering has worked, and is working now – just not always as intended. As previously noted, geoengineering was used as a weapon to alter rainfall during the Vietnam War, and currently, unwittingly, geoengineering is altering weather hundreds of kilometers from coal-burning power plants. Geoengineering also has been linked to earthquakes as well as unpredictable weather patterns.

Projects to experiment on sea ice reflectivity and inject aerosols into the upper atmosphere are progressing despite objections from the scientific and indigenous communities. And, most recently, governance of geoengineering practices has been derailed by fossil-fuel interests.

Earlier this year I created a report on geoengineering for a graduate course I attended at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. It’s an overview of some of the major projects under development and related research:

Critics maintain geoengineering siphons critical funding from transitioning to a green economy, and fails to address the root problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions – which continue to threaten the whole of the marine environment with increased ocean acidity.

Still, without a rapid transition to green, clean energy, and without some means to immediately remove CO2 from the atmosphere, proponents see geoengineering as a way to stall or limit rising global temperatures until such global warming mitigation is feasible. Yet research in this area is scant, governance essentially is self-governing, and ethical concerns remain regarding who can implement geoengineering, and at what cost to those who may bear the brunt of its negative and potentially extreme impacts.