Administrator’s note: It’s my pleasure to feature a guest essay by Glen Barry. Dr. Barry is founder and President of Ecological Internet; provider of the largest, most used environmental portals on the Internet including the Climate Ark and EcoEarth.info. A conservation biologist and political ecologist, he writes impassioned, thought provoking essays from an uncompromising ecological point of view. They appear regularly on his blog, Earth Meanders, where this one originated.
In this essay, Dr. Barry takes a strong stance against geo-engineered solutions to climate change. This is a contentious topic on which respected scientists and environmentalists hold a wide range of opinions. Glen’s essay prompts us to think hard about fundamental questions such a topic raises, questions concerning the role of humans in the global ecology. My thanks to Glen for making it available. — JF
By Glen Barry:
Is humanity so resistant to change that we will tamper with the biosphere’s workings to construct a “Frankensphere” rather than reducing population, consumption and emissions?
It is being widely suggested that humanity can “geo-engineer” a global solution to climate change; that is, modify the Earth’s biosphere at a planetary scale. Many methods are proposed. Most include either reflecting additional solar radiation away from the Earth, or using the ocean to store more carbon.
Reactionary geo-engineering proposals emerge largely from a sense of desperation as the world fails to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, and an unwillingness to make necessary societal and personal changes in response to deadly climate change. To some the extreme action of taking the Earth’s ecological systems into techno-human hands seems sensible given indications that global heating is proceeding more rapidly than thought, as shown by unexpectedly quick melting of Arctic sea ice.
Risky climate geo-engineering schemes include giant vertical pipes in the ocean to increase ocean circulation and thus marine carbon sequestration, similarly growing vast blooms of ocean plankton by fertilizing with iron, erecting giant mirrors above the earth to reflect the sun’s energy, and dropping sulfur particles from balloons at high altitude to do the same.
Two rogue US companies are moving forward with plans to fertilize the ocean with iron to create plankton blooms to suck heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They are motivated by profits from the growing carbon credit market, rising public demands for action, and politicians eager to avoid painful reductions in emissions. There is little that can be done to stop them, as no applicable laws or treaties exist.
Such efforts to “manage” Gaia are absolute madness – betting the planet and humanity on something as complex as artificially regulating a biosphere. Radical geo-engineering proposals could just as easily worsen the situation if these projects fail or are suddenly halted. And it is highly likely that unintended consequences of widespread implementation of such schemes would outweigh possible benefits. Have we learned nothing from the biofuels boondoggle? Failure could destroy the Earth.
There has been little research on the potential impacts upon marine ecosystems. The powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide may be released as marine organic matter decomposes. Oxygen may become depleted in the deep ocean, killing fish and throwing already troubled marine ecosystems into further turmoil. Even James Lovelock, the British scientist that first conceived of Gaia as a self-regulating organism, has fallen victim to favoring human technology over proven Earth processes.
Gaia, the Earth System, is a finely honed creature with unbelievably complex and ancient existing systems of planetary regulation. Messing with ocean carbon storage and solar radiation levels will affect ocean currents and acidity, atmospheric circulation and weather. Almost certainly there will be a whole host of follow-on effects, and dependable climatic patterns are likely to be further seriously diminished.
It is unfathomable to me that after millennia of ecological ignorance and unconstrained global ecological change leading to our current ecological crises, that a handful of scientists and business people could be so egotistical as to suppose they can play God and refashion a planet. Once geo-engineering is embraced, we could never stop, or the carbon would be re-released. Again, to propose human management of the biosphere is so egoistical and dangerous; and wrong on so many levels.
These may be desperate times, but governments have not even acted yet to set mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The skeptics have only just gone from denying the problem to minimizing its importance. Rather than embracing known sufficient policies that could solve the problem by transforming our energy and transportation systems, it is human nature to seek the easy way out. Yet reducing emissions of CO2, population, and consumption; and restoring global ecological systems, is so much more likely to be effective.
So much nature remains — that could be enlarged, reconnected and regenerated — that it is wrong to give up on natural ecosystems’ processes to embrace a techno-industrial “Frankensphere”. A failing biosphere can never be managed in any real sense to mimic a healthy biosphere. It is simply too complex.
If SUVs and coal plants are still spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, clearly risky geo-engineering is unjustified. Humanity is unable to eliminate exotic species, live peacefully, end deforestation, or stop having so many babies; yet it is going to take the global ecosystem into its management? Geo-engineering cannot succeed and it is terribly misguided to suggest it can.
Geo-engineering represents the shameless extreme nature of societal refusal to cut energy use and emissions. We have not even really tried in earnest as a human family to do so through conservation, efficiency and alternatives. Yet, before we have even begun, we are going to bet the human family’s future on technological fixes that we hope will allow us to continue consuming, and pumping out babies and emissions, without end?
I am furious; absolutely certain with every thread of my ecological knowledge, intuition and being that no good and a large amount of harm will come from geo-engineering. Proposed global scale experimental environmental fixes will be disastrous. Under no circumstances may untested planetary manipulations commence until all other options have failed. The seeds of an operable biosphere remain, they must be given time and space to reestablish themselves; and humanity challenged and aided by all means to embrace necessary radical change.
The biosphere belongs to all people and tribes, and should it come to wild once off experiments with the Earth, the decision must be made by United Nations’ consensus. Until then, government prohibitions on unsanctioned activities must be implemented with all haste. Given the lack of regulation against such planetary scale climate experiments, direct action to stop arbitrary and capricious geo-engineering implementation is warranted and necessary.
Image source: NASA, US government, public domain