By CHRISTINE FRANK
As a last-ditch effort to curb runaway global warming, while avoiding a definitive halt to fossil-fuel combustion, scientists, governments, entrepreneurs, and even right-wing think tanks are advocating various highly dangerous technologies to block solar radiation or draw down atmospheric carbon to cool the planet. Touted as Plan B, these risky methods come under the label of either Solar Radiation Management (SRM) or Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR).
SRM techniques under consideration include placing space-based solar deflectors in orbit, spewing sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, and seeding clouds to increase their brightness. CDR techniques include Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) of CO2 from power-plant flue gases, the iron fertilization of the oceans to stimulate phytoplankton blooms, and burning acres of trees for biochar burial in soils.
For any of these ruinously expensive, energy-intensive techno-fixes to work, they must be applied on a planetary-wide, mega-scale, at great risk to Earth’s natural systems and human societies. Their implementation could result in an array of disastrous unintended consequences due to reckless human interference.
A case in point would be the initial Grand Experiment of employing fossil fuels to power the Industrial Revolution, which got us into this mess in the first place. Over the two-and-a-half centuries of hydrocarbon burning and steadily rising carbon dioxide emissions, the growing evidence that greenhouse gases were warming the planet was either ignored, denied, or deliberately suppressed by those who profited from the coal, gas, and oil industries.
With that in mind, any child worried about his or her future could easily grasp the folly of using Mother Earth as a laboratory for geoengineering experiments, yet scientists as well as some so-called environmentalists, who both should know better, are ready to push the panic button in order to “buy time.”
To buy time for whom, we may ask? It is clear that quick-fixing the climate will allow the capitalist class to conduct business as usual by never having to give up fossil fuels. That is why Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson declared back in 2007 that adapting to extreme weather and rising sea levels is an “engineering problem” that has “engineering solutions.”
That’s right, Rex, with the help of Yankee ingenuity and American know-how, we can engineer our way out of ecological collapse so you and your ilk will be free to pillage, plunder, and pollute for profit until the natural world descends into chaos. There may be a Plan B, but there is no Planet B! A growing number of climate crisis activists are realizing that and demanding a ban on geoengineering experiments, funding, and implementation.
We now know from paleoclimatic evidence that dramatic changes on a planetary scale are difficult to reverse and can lead to irreparable harm, even mass extinctions. Earth’s climate system is a complexity of natural variables and feedback loops. All of the planet’s matrices—atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, and lithosphere—interact in non-linear and subtle ways to create a self-regulatory whole. Therefore, a change in the solar flux could cause an imbalance in the global heat budget and alter atmospheric circulation, precipitation patterns, and ocean currents to the detriment of life in the affected regions. Needless to say, the economic costs of launching an array of sun shields or mirrors into orbit would be astronomical.
The release of sulfate aerosols mixed with polluting jet aircraft exhaust into the stratosphere would also have detrimental side effects. Historically, tropical volcanic eruptions that release sulfur particles can cause warmer winters over land masses in the Northern Hemisphere, whereas, eruptions at high latitudes weaken the Asian and African monsoons, causing droughts. Adding aerosols to the stratosphere could exacerbate ozone depletion by providing more surfaces on which harmful chemical reactions take place. Also, blocking sunlight would mean less for renewable solar power. Acid rain that kills forests and aquatic life could be another ill effect.
A flotilla of ships spraying seawater into the air in order to increase Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN) and brighten marine stratocumulus clouds may not be the “Silver Lining” that is promised. It could backfire with a counterproductive reduction in cloud cover because of all the industrial pollutants present over the ocean adding to the mix.
For years, carbon capture and sequestration have been used to foster the myth of Clean Coal. With a handful of exceptions, most coal-fired power plants have not deployed CCS because of the enormous expense and energy required to create the solvents to absorb the CO2 from the smokestacks and to pressurize and pipe the supercritical gas underground into a secure geologic formation. Critics have pointed out the dangers of the highly pressurized carbon dioxide migrating through the rock fissures and belching out at the surface where it would smother anything breathing at ground level.
Supposedly, the CarbFix project in Iceland has succeeded in mineralizing carbon pollution from a geothermal power station by pumping it into subterranean volcanic basalt formations. The in situ process took only two years rather than millions, greatly improving on geologic time scales. The major drawbacks to applying this technique on a world scale are the availability of basalt formations, the energy required to transport the carbon dioxide from its source, and the amount of water—25 tons per each ton of CO2—necessary to pipe it into permanent geologic storage. It would require a massive infrastructure.
Then there are always the problems of pipeline ruptures and wellhead blowouts plus the hazards of deep-sea drilling. The more complex the mechanical means, the more things that can go wrong.
Dumping a slurry of iron sulfate into the ocean to increase marine phytoplankton populations has had limited results in drawing down carbon. What has happened in actual trials is that iron fertilization encourages a feeding frenzy among the zooplankton grazers, resulting in very little carbon actually being sequestered as dead plankton or fecal matter—marine snow—in the deep ocean.
Also, there is the danger of undermining the integrity of the food web. Neurotoxic algal blooms can poison fish, shellfish, and marine mammals, and nutrient overloading can deplete oxygen and create dead zones in the world’s seas. Also, methanophilic bacteria could take advantage of the situation and release massive amounts of dimethylsulfide (DMS) into the atmosphere, blocking the sunlight needed for photosynthesis.
Because no government is forcing the Big Polluters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, panicked scientists and politicians say that conventional means of mitigating global warming are not working. Therefore, we need to resort to more drastic measures, and they are receiving encouragement from wealthy entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Mark Lynas, who are eager to patent every wild, hair-brained scheme coming down the pike. The result is the privatization of global warming mitigation strategies to satisfy their greed. It raises the question of who ultimately controls the thermostat and whether they have the right to imperil the lives of everyone else.
Another reason why we are not winning the struggle to save the climate is the cowardice of the weak, reformist environmental groups, who are afraid to challenge the Carbon Barons head on, so they compromise by promoting electric cars instead of clean mass transit.
Fearing the wrath of Big Auto, the Union of Concerned Scientists has harped endlessly on improved fuel-efficiency standards because it too cannot give up its worship of the internal combustion engine. For years, the Sierra Club falsely advocated natural gas as a “bridge or transitional fuel” until it was revealed that its leadership had been taking millions in donations from the industry. Even climatologist James Hansen believes in “green nukes” by advocating thorium reactors.
The delusional sci-fi fantasy that human beings can control powerful natural forces is based on the mechanistic view that the Universe is a giant clockwork that can tolerate endless tinkering without consequence. Only the democratic control of science for the benefit of society will allow us to work with Mother Nature instead of against her.
We already have renewable wind and solar technologies at our disposal, which will enable us to leave the fossil fuels in the ground. Instead, of torching trees for biochar, we should be saving the world’s forests from the logger’s chainsaw. To increase the carbon-storage capacity of Earth’s badly depleted, lifeless soils, organic matter must be recycled to regenerate their health and fertility instead of flushed into the ocean. Organic food production, not genetic monsters and toxic chemicals, will feed the world.
To implement these sustainable measures, we must first get rid of the economic system and the class that puts profits before human and ecological needs. Many have already been conducted with dubious results.