Science Wednesday: Sustainability on Steroids

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Have you heard about geoengineering? It has been around as a concept for over a decade, but has come into the forefront recently because of a Royal Society report last fall and a new book. It is offered as a solution to global climate change, one of the biggest sustainability issues.

The idea behind geoengineering is that planet earth came to its present state because humans engineered natural systems on a large scale. For example, humans changed the flow of rivers. We straightened them, dammed them, diverted them, reversed them. Humans changed the landscape: cut down forests, plowed the soil, blew up hills and mountains. Humans changed the atmosphere. We sent toxic wastes skyward, spewed out CO2 from combustion, filled the skies with particles.

In short, we engineered the planet on a very large scale.

Unfortunately, these projects had unintended consequences such as poor water quality or decreased quantity, land erosion and loss of nutrients in the soil, global climate change. So, a kind of large-scale reverse engineering might be in order to fix these problems.

In particular, geoengineering has been offered as a possible way to reverse the effects of climate change. For example, geoengineers have suggested :

  • fertilizing the ocean to increase the growth of algae which take up CO2 and give off oxygen as they photosynthesize
  • putting huge mirrors into orbit to reflect back some of the warming sunlight
  • seeding the clouds so it would rain when and where wanted
  • pumping CO2 deep into the earth or ocean

All this sounds like science fiction, but it is proposed by perfectly objective scientists/engineers. The concern is that someone will come along and say let’s “just do it.” There may or may not be dire consequences from “just doing it.” This is where science comes in.

Barbara KarnBecause of the importance and scale of these issues, we need to gather the knowledge to make intelligent decisions. Ignorance is not bliss and must be erased in the light of facts.
In the case of geoengineering, we must neither avoid research in this area just because it seems like a science fiction solution to our climate problem, nor should we embrace it as a quick fix and neglect the long term action of lowering and controlling emissions. Just like steroids’ quick fix, these solutions may have dire consequences.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and a regular Science Wednesday contributor.