Geoengineering – last chance saloon or carte blanche for political inertia?

From giant mirrors in space reflecting sunlight away from earth, to pumping aerosols into the stratosphere, geoengineering could, in the not too distant future, become reality.

VICTOR HABBICK VISIONS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY (from nature.com)

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Once an idea limited to the realms of a James Bond film, human manipulation of climate – geoengineering – is increasingly being discussed by some of the most respected climate scientists in the world. Last month the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAA), was the first scientific body to endorse research into ‘geoengineering’, the University of East Anglia has received funding to carry out research, and the Royal Society just reviewed measures and concluded that there should be a UNFCCC working group on Geoengineering.

Leading journals such as Science, Nature and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society have all recently published reviews on the potential of geoengineering projects as a means for halting global climate change. Naturally, this was accompanied by a cautionary note (common to publications in this field) that geoengineering is not an alternative to mitigation, reflecting researchers’ growing concern that their work may be used as an excuse for inaction.

So, are geoengineering projects the last chance saloon for avoiding dangerous climate change, or just another excuse to maintain an economic system that is failing to meet social justice and environment goals?

Last year, Prof. Tim Lenton (of tipping elements fame) and Tyndall Centre research fellow Naomi Vaughan published a paper in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Lenton and Vaughan argue that fundamental criterion for evaluating the effectiveness of these projects should be how much cooling they are able to achieve. From a purely technical standpoint, this seems the most logical assessment. But, I would argue, that the fundamental criterion for evaluating the effectiveness of these projects is much broader than their ability to offset climate change.

The most fundamental criterion should be: are these geoengineering projects worth their cost to society? Geoengineering projects may fix the problem of climate change, but they can’t fix a system that is responsible for long-standing social inequalities vis-à-vis the growing gap between rich and poor; skewed distributions of power between state, market and civil society actors; falling democratic participation; and declining well-being. For that, there needs to be a wider systemic change.

But, there are win-win-win responses to climate change that can meet triple bottom line goals. These tend to be locally embedded sustainable development projects such as decentralised food and energy systems. And, while it’s easy to overly romanticise localism, there is a growing amount of empirical evidence that suggests that with the right support and participation of the local community, these projects can be inclusive and meet local social, economic and environmental goals. Benefits range from local economic development, jobs and skills, social cohesion, improved environmental literacy and pro-environmental behaviour change.

While it is unlikely these will be the only solutions we use, there is a growing body of literature points to social cohesion and the ability to act collectively as important factors in adaptive capacity and resilience (the ability of a system to main its function whilst undergoing change). These attributes are critical because due to the inertia of the climate system, we are already committed to at least 50 years of climate change. In other words, climate change is no longer just about CO2.

So, yes geoengineering may become a necessity, especially atmospheric CO2 concentrations are to be returned to less than 350ppm – the concentration that Jim Hansen, NASA climate scientist now believes is the maximum safe concentration of the greenhouse gas. But, if geoengineering and other macro-responses draw attention away from the need for scaling out and flourishing local, grassroots responses, then we’re missing a huge opportunity to redress some long-standing inequalities.

Geoengineering might be the last chance we have to prevent catastrophic climate change, but it also offers the opportunity to skirt around some tough political decisions, such as maintain the current economic paradigm or shift to a less resource intensive alternative. And, it’s worth remembering that macro-responses like geoengineering don’t have the same multiplier effects that can help communities around the world transition to sustainable, just and resilient low carbon economies.

*I wrote this article last year and subsequently forgot about it – hence reference to events last year – and this won’t be the last word on the matter I promise.

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