Geoengineering: desperate times call for desperate measures? | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 25.08.2022

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Science

Geoengineering: desperate times call for desperate measures?

Scientists' attitudes toward geoengineering, or mitigating the effects of climate change with the help of technology, are changing.

A fire in an Algerian forest

As politicians fail to pass proper measures to mitigate the climate crisis, the idea of geoengineering as a potential part of the solution is gaining acceptance

Geoengineering as a means to slow climate change is one of the most contentious subjects in the field of climate science.

Along with being heavily debated within the scientific community itself, the topic remains divisive among the general public.

Geoengineering describes attempts by humanity to halt the effects of climate change using technology.

First introduced during the Cold War, the idea only became popular in 2006, when a Nobel Prize-winning chemist named Paul Crutzen published a paper advocating an "escape route" from global warming by artificially manipulating the atmosphere to counter CO2 emissions.

Over the past fifteen years, experiments have been conducted to understand how this type of technology — think artificial clouds, for instance — could be developed and eventually deployed.

But it's currently illegal to facilitate any sort of geoengineering on a large industrial scale, since no one fully understands the impact it could have on other aspects of the environment.

The pros and cons of geoengineering

When considering the use of geoengineering, the general public and climate scientists alike tend to follow two lines of argument.

Some say that geoengineering the climate is too risky. They argue that the only way to reverse, or at least slow the impact of manmade global warming, is to stop releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. More intervention will just cause more problems, they say.

Others agree that although climate change mitigation is the main way to address the climate crisis, relying on emission reductions alone isn't enough — the political will required to lower emissions to the degree necessary simply isn't there. They think geoengineering might end up being our only choice. Despite being risky, they say the danger posed by not trying geoengineering is greater than trying it. 

As the situation worsens, attitudes about geoengineering are shifting.

A coal fired power plant against a sunrise

As global warming worsens due to the human emission of greenhouse gases, scientists' attitudes toward geoengineering technology are changing

Climate experts' evolving perceptions

Miranda Böttcher, a political scientist, discourse analyst and researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Katharina Beyerl, an environmental psychologist and researcher at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany, and Dorothee Amelung, a psychologist at Heidelberg University, authored a research study tracking how the attitudes of climate engineering experts relating to their field changed between 2014 and 2021. 

Three main findings emerged from their paper, which has yet to be published. First, they noted that climate engineering experts were increasingly concerned about insufficient global efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing human greenhouse gas emissions.

Their second finding had to do with habituation. Scientists seem to be getting more used to the various risks of geoengineering. Although they still said they considered mitigation to be the only safe known climate change response strategy, they are apparently becoming more open to climate engineering research and field tests.

Last, the researchers found that this shift in attitude among climate engineering experts is mainly in response to a perceived lack of political movement on climate change mitigation.

Böttcher, who has been studying the geoengineering debate for years, said she has observed a "drop in fear” of geoengineering among the community engaged in the debate.

"We see that this fear of the risks of climate engineering is relativizing," she said. "It's dropping among the community relative to their fear of climate change, because their fear of climate change is rising."

Blurring the geoengineering definition

Böttcher said this relativization is causing the definition of what constitutes geoengineering to become blurred.

For years, carbon dioxide removal — the deliberate removal of CO2 from the atmosphere — and solar radiation management — the reflection of radiation back into space to prevent further warming — have been considered the two main types of geoengineering.

Now, carbon dioxide removal has been reframed in the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports as a means of mitigation, said Böttcher.

"It has been completely normalized," she said. "It is no longer climate engineering, it is no longer part of this scary out-of-the-box concept. It is now really normalizing as part of mainstream climate policy."

She added this could mean that in the future, perceptions of solar radiation management undergo the same kind of shift.

"I hope that's not the case, because I really think that it's extremely risky," she said. "But it could well be that as the fear and risk of climate change becomes more present and more urgent and more central to climate policymaking, that the boundaries of what is considered an acceptable risk in climate intervention are shifted."

Can solar geoengineering cool the planet?

No 'quick fix' to climate crisis

Psychologically speaking, it's not difficult to understand why some people want to believe geoengineering is the answer to an apocalyptic climate disaster.

"It's the hope for a quick fix," said Beyerl. "It’s comparable to diet pills when people want to lose weight, but don’t want to do sports or change their diet. It won't solve the underlying problem, but rather causes new ones. Actually, we need to change our lifestyles. And that's difficult and it's annoying, because it is currently easier to live unsustainably and many of us are used to this consumerist lifestyle." 

Geoengineering is not the easy way out 

Some scientists and policymakers share the concern of geoengineering being considered a blanket solution. They say that if geoengineering is presented as an easy fix for global warming, people will be less inclined to take part in emission reduction efforts.

Böttcher says this presents a greater threat at an institutional and systemic level than at an individual one.

"The promise of carbon removal is much more politically effective than it actually will be in real life," she said. "So now, just through the promise of carbon dioxide removal, there may be a delay in investing in green energy for example. The challenge now is to create governance structures that ensure this cannot happen."

The study authors say the notion that carbon dioxide removal is the ultimate solution to counterbalancing residual emissions is false. Just because the idea of carbon removal is becoming more normalized in scientific communities doesn't mean it is anywhere near being able to be deployed on a large scale.

"The technology is not in place and there will be a huge investment needed to create the infrastructure," Böttcher said. "Then we would need green energy to make sure that what we're actually doing removes more CO2 than it produces. So it's all very unclear whether that would be actually technically, financially and politically feasible within different national contexts."

Edited by: Carla Bleiker