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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and scientists from around the world have said it time and again: CO2 emissions need to be radically reduced in order to stop the world from warming to a point where it will trigger catastrophic climate change.
But radical reductions aren’t in place right now, which is why some scientists and policymakers are considering a controversial option: geoengineering, or the deliberate manipulation of the environment.
The discussion has recently taken centre stage as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. received $4 million to research geoengineering, with no confirmation as to what that might look like.
One of the more popular methods of geoengineering is solar radiation management (SRM). In this method, particles of sulphur or calcium carbonate are sprayed into the stratosphere, which makes solar radiation “bounce” off clouds back into space, creating a cooling effect. It’s the same process that happens after a large volcanic eruption.
There are many issues concerning the potential of employing such a method, including whether it is scientifically possible, economically viable and how a body like the United Nations might govern its use.
But another big one is whether it is ethical.
Thus far, geoengineering studies have been done primarily in labs using models. It’s unknown whether it would produce the desired effect on a larger scale or what the consequences might be.
However, several studies that have modelled SRM find that large-scale use of it could increase precipitation in some parts of the world — potentially in some of the regions in the tropics.
“If you’re talking about justice and equity, then the impacts of changing rainfall patterns are going to fall disproportionately on the poorest around the world,” said Emily Cox, an environmental policy researcher at Cardiff University as well as the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K.
Cox also noted that there is a philosophical discussion around intentional versus unintentional harm. For example, burning coal and emitting CO2 isn’t limited to borders and is already causing unintended consequences. Similarly, if we employ SRM, we could be causing unintentional harm for other countries.
“Everything we do affects other nations,” she said.
David Keith is a Canadian professor of applied physics at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, which is home to one of the leading geoengineering labs in the world. He disputes the findings that state SRM will increase precipitation.
“We had a big paper that was very well reported last year in [the journal] Nature Climate Change that contradicts that assumption,” he said.
There is clearly still dispute over the effects of geoengineering, but given the potential differences in outcome, it’s unlikely every country in the world will agree on the specifics of SRM. So what happens when one country says it doesn’t support it? How ethical would it be for another country to simply proceed?
There are “big philosophical questions here,” said Cox. As a result, “there’s a real danger of polarization.” SOURCE