The Rise of Geoengineering: Smart? Safe? Too Easy?


Though the it’s-too-late set seems to be growing, most scientists agree that when it comes to human-induced climate change, there are solutions. Most of these solutions are ambitious. Some, in fact, might be too ambitious – and perhaps too dangerous on a number of fronts.

Geoengineering is exactly what it says it is – engineering our geo. If you want to get a little more technical, here’s a definition from the National Academy of Sciences:  “Options that would involve large-scale engineering of our environment in order to combat or counteract the effects of changes in atmospheric chemistry.”

This example has recently been discussed quite a bit: When the Philippines’ Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it released about 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and decreased world temperatures by an average of half a degree. That’s a big drop and the kind of climate change that, as a global population, we might be very interested in. So here’s the geoengineering news: We now have the technology to get the same job done – without a volcano – using airplanes or blimps to inject sulfur dioxide directly into the stratosphere.

But wait, there’s more. If playing Volcano God doesn’t do it for you, how about:

  • Spraying massive amounts of seawater mist at low-lying clouds to reflect sunlight.
  • Launching sunlight-reflecting mirrors into the Earth’s orbit.
  • Seeding the ocean with iron to boost phytoplankton growth. (“Plankton release a chemical called dimethyl sulphide into the atmosphere which helps cloud droplets form. More droplets mean whiter clouds that bounce more solar energy away from Earth,” says New Scientist.)

In fact, there are all kinds of ways we can take the reins of our climate situation. Are they good ways to combat global warming? Maybe, but hey, perhaps it’s a good idea to set up some rules here.

Ever since the concept of geoengineering came on the scene, excitement around the scientific possibilities has been tempered by political and ethical (perhaps even more than practical) considerations at every turn. For example, with the potentially global impact of any effort, who gets to play? Anyone who wants to (read: has an interest and can afford to)? What would prevent the abuse of such high-impact, “planet-hacking” technologies? Say an arid country would like to wet its whistle a bit? What’s to stop it from doing a little more than praying for rain? Of course, there’s also the little problem of a hostile nation wanting to flood or dry out an adversary.

Enter the United Nations. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recently closed its 10th biennial meeting in Nagoya, Japan, with the implementation of “a de facto moratorium on geoengineering projects and experiments.”

This makes sense – making sure that geoengineering science is explored in the global light of day, with science and ethics awareness checks as research moves forward. Good intentions aside, the weaponization potential alone requires every effort to make sure the wrong people don’t get their ill-willed fingers on any climate triggers. As one astute writer at the recently put it, the current world of geoengineering “is eerily reminiscent of the race to develop nuclear weapons in the 1940s.”

But let’s look at one more angle on this debate. Are these scientifically grand and impressive approaches to global warming just easy (for rocket scientists, anyway) answers to a complicated problem? Might “the promise” of geoengineering encourage a form of laziness, giving us the illusion that we’re relieved of the burden we must ultimately carry if we’re going to better manage how we manage our world?

If we’re going to take on human-induced climate change, we’re going to have to do some heavy lifting. We’re going to have to make some fundamental changes to how we view, consume and burn energy. We’re going to have to quickly evolve our thinking regarding sustainability and obsolescence and resource usage. We going to have reinvent our relationship with the Earth and no amount of New Big Science is going to end-run this fact.

Image: ewen and donabel

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at