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Climate Engineering

A critical review of proposals, their scientific and political context, and possible impacts

Abstract:

This review of climate engineering proposals aims to provide a comprehensive resource of up to date information and ideas for people concerned about the development of large-scale technical fixes to counter the problem of global warming.

The proposals fall into three main categories:

  • increasing the reflection of solar radiation back to space
  • enhancing natural sinks of carbon dioxide, and
  • direct disposal of carbon dioxide captured at source

In addition, proposals involving weather modification, ozone chemistry and terraforming Mars are mentioned briefly. Direct disposal of carbon dioxide is included because it involves exploitation of "global commons" such as the deep ocean, and because it is often compared with schemes to increase natural sinks.

Some of these proposals are realistic and thus a real cause for concern, whilst the reader may find amusement in reading some of the crazier schemes! All of these technical fixes are intended to tackle the symptom of the problem of fossil fuel consumption. The development of technology to encourage energy efficiency or renewable energy, on the other hand, which is intended to reduce that consumption, is much less controversial, and is not considered here.

Sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry is closely linked to the bluffing game of international greenhouse politics

Some academic research projects which may lead to climate engineering, such as fertilisation of the Southern Ocean with added Iron, have recently received much media attention. However, the media seems to be less aware of the much larger community of researchers who are employed by the fossil fuel and power industries to investigate similar proposals for enhancing CO2 sinks. This review aims to clarify not only how each proposal might work or fail, but also who is promoting each idea.

Sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry is closely linked to the bluffing game of international greenhouse politics, where excuses for doing nothing are always welcome. Hidden political values are concealed in cost-benefit analyses, in which a trade off can be made between climate engineering or climate warming damages, implying that consumption is already non-negotiable.

The "just in case" argument for backing climate engineering research may become a self-fulfilling prophesy in this political context, but in the real world the choice might then be between two potential catastrophes, for positive feedback processes make the climate system inherently surprising. I conclude by asking whether such research should continue, and how we might check its momentum in the future.


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