Photo: We can't just geoengineer our way out of climate change

Because nature doesn't always behave the same in a lab, test tube or computer program as it does in the real world, scientists and engineers have come up with ideas that didn't turn out as expected. (Credit: Paul Bica via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Senior Editor

Because nature doesn't always behave the same in a lab, test tube or computer program as it does in the real world, scientists and engineers have come up with ideas that didn't turn out as expected.

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DDT was considered a panacea for a range of insect pest issues, from controlling disease to helping farmers. But we didn't understand bioaccumulation back then — toxins concentrating up the food chain, risking the health and survival of animals from birds to humans. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, seemed so terrific we put them in everything from aerosol cans to refrigerators. Then we learned they damage the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful solar radiation.

These unintended consequences come partly from our tendency to view things in isolation, without understanding how all nature is interconnected. We're now facing the most serious unintended consequence ever: climate change from burning fossil fuels. Some proposed solutions may also result in unforeseen outcomes.

Oil, gas and coal are miraculous substances — energy absorbed from the sun by plants and animals hundreds of millions of years ago, retained after they died and concentrated as the decaying life became buried deeper into the earth. Burning them to harness and release this energy opened up possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors. We could create machines and technologies to reduce our toil, heat and light our homes, build modern cities for growing populations and provide accessible transport for greater mobility and freedom. And because the stuff seemed so plentiful and easy to obtain, we could build vehicles and roads for everyone — big cars that used lots of gas — so that enormous profits would fuel prosperous, consumer-driven societies.

We knew fairly early that pollution affected human health, but that didn't seem insurmountable. We just needed to improve fuel efficiency and create better pollution-control standards. That reduced rather than eliminated the problem and only partly addressed an issue that appears to have caught us off-guard: the limited availability of these fuels. But the trade-offs seemed worthwhile.

Then, for the past few decades, a catastrophic consequence of our profligate use of fossil fuels has loomed. Burning them has released excessive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a thick, heat-trapping blanket. Along with our destruction of natural carbon-storing environments, such as forests and wetlands, this has steadily increased global average temperatures, causing climate change.

We're now faced with ever-increasing extreme weather-related events and phenomena such as ocean acidification, which affects myriad marine life, from shellfish to corals to plankton. The latter produce oxygen and are at the very foundation of the food chain.

Had we addressed the problem from the outset, we could have solutions in place. We could have found ways to burn less fossil fuel without massively disrupting our economies and ways of life. But we've become addicted to the lavish benefits that fossil fuels have offered, and the wealth and power they've provided to industrialists and governments. And so there's been a concerted effort to stall or avoid corrective action, with industry paying front groups, "experts" and governments to deny or downplay the problem.

Now that climate change has become undeniable, with consequences getting worse daily, many experts are eyeing solutions. Some are touting massive technological fixes, such as dumping large amounts of iron filings into the seas to facilitate carbon absorption, pumping nutrient-rich cold waters from the ocean depths to the surface, building giant reflectors to bounce sunlight back into space and irrigating vast deserts.

But we're still running up against those pesky unintended consequences. Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, studied five geoengineering schemes and concluded they're "either relatively ineffective with limited warming reductions, or they have potentially severe side effects and cannot be stopped without causing rapid climate change." That's partly because we don't fully understand climate and weather systems and their interactions.

That doesn't mean we should rule out geoengineering. Climate change is so serious that we'll need to marshal everything we have to confront it, and some methods appear to be more benign than others. But geoengineering isn't the solution. And it's no excuse to go on wastefully burning fossil fuels. We must conserve energy and find ways to quickly shift to cleaner sources.

March 20, 2014

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Mar 28, 2014
3:15 AM

I recently received a request from your organization regarding bringing back the Monarch Buttefly. While this may be a worthy endeavour, what I am most worried about is bringing back the bees. What can be done to save the bees? That would be a project I would be happy to support. Do you feel that the GMO crops have something to do with the decline of bees? I am from Edmonton, AB. I haven’t seen a Monarch Buttefly in these parts for years. Are we too far north to have them?. If not, I am wondering if I grew milkweed in my garden, would that help?. How many Milkweed plants in each garden would it take if everyone started planting them in their gardens?.My donation is in the mail. kw

Mar 25, 2014
10:58 AM

I guess no comments that came in after this article was posted corresponded with your guidelines…?

Mar 23, 2014
2:38 AM

The solution seems so frightfully easy. In Canada, the government simply says it owns all the natural resources and then agrees to either lease them out for renewable resources like trees on land, or sell them at a tariff. Canada just needs to set a tariff on oil that’s sufficiently high that it becomes uneconomical to extract oil from the tar sands. When that happens, the oil economy goes away and Canada has to learn to compete on services rather than behaving like an oil emirate (well, Harper and Alberta anyway).

Stopping Canadian oil production will create an increase in the world price that should also prompt demand for fuel efficiency measures and oil alternatives. Fundamentally, oil is too cheap. Canada should attempt to preserve its reserves through an extraction tariff that is too high to make extraction worthwhile.

Additionally, Canada should raise federal taxes on gasoline from 10¢/L about $2/liter. Sure, it won’t be popular, but it would raise tax revenues, create a boom in fuel efficient car sales, improve logistics management capabilities, reduce urban congestion (and improve public transit efficiency) and reduce carbon emissions.

This isn’t a novel idea, it’s a lesson from Europe!

Mar 22, 2014
3:30 PM

I have a suggestion for a solution. We have to stop the severity of the loss of Arctic Ice because it is changing weather patterns. We need to block the sun’s rays somehow.. and how better to do that than by sending a very high orbit satellite with a large folding “sail-like” apparatus that can be configured to block some of the sunlight from reaching the Arctic. I believe we have the technology to do this.. and it’s adaptable and non-invasive. But that doesn’t stop our CO2 production and reliance on fossil fuels. But our atmosphere contains the elements we need to make our own fuel.. the very molecules that endanger us can be used to make fuel. We need to set several high output power generation stations based on LFTR to create cheap electricity that can be used to crack seawater into hydrogen and oxygen, and pumps to collect CO2 from the atmosphere.. and combine them to make our own hydrocarbon fuels. We in turn use these carbon neutral fuels to replace the oil and gas we use to power our transportation needs. We also eliminate fossil fuel fired power production and replace it with LFTR.

None of these things come without a cost, and there will be considerable pushback from the present stakeholders involved in coal production. transport and power production, oil and gas giants, and the nuclear power industry… but the costs we face in not taking action now will most likely be catastrophic and beyond the ability of our present civilization to recover from.

Mar 22, 2014
1:56 PM

Its Climate Change

We are all keys to the greater solution. We have visionaries, architects, engineers and workforce to accomplish the inevitable. But we need to allow impossibility, out of the box thinking to flourish. We need to celebrate ingenuity in diversity. But we preoccupied by the notion of Dirty Energy as the only means of salvation and that it is somebody else’s duty to change the status quo. We are scared of change!! We are paranoid with the misconception of scientific solutions. There is a greater force at play in this world, that confuses scientist. With unfathomable repercussions. Our science have forsaken us. Our deluded method of Geo-engineering, biofuels, fracking etc have caused this Mess.

We have to, embrace our creativity. We have to allow our advance state of being to solve our problems.

Tesla Coils, Tesla free energy Henderson generators Johnson generator Energy Multiplier ………………………. The power is within us to make change.

Mar 22, 2014
12:54 PM

We are beginning to correct our behaviors with respect to climate change but we have a long way to go and we face numerous obstacles. One obstacle, which I perceive will be the most difficult to overcome, is that which we need to do will have a negative impact on some very rich individuals who just happen to also have a lot of influence. This will continue to be a struggle.

One aspect which I feel we need to address and we seem to be overlooking is our population. I believe our planet has the capacity to support many living beings, however, not when they behave as humans do. No matter how good we can get at managing our carbon footprints, we have simply way too many carbon footprints to manage and this is tilting the playing field against us.

Mar 22, 2014
8:24 AM

You know just yesterday an old friend of mine at the tail end of the baby-boom (about 50 yr old man) from Texas, espoused to me the shocking conclusion that the Prius was in his words “a shitty little car.” Enter friend #2 college graduated graduated last year, thermodynamics minor sustainable energy major has had two prius’ put like 100,000 miles on them between the two and now lives in Southern California where he is on the team building that huge SunCal project. His thinking in typical of what I see of the millenials and it gives me hope they want to do more to preserve our planet than the last or the one in between the boomers and the millenials. Selfishness has got to go. The tragedy of the commons means that driving a large gas guzzler just because you can afford to is ALL TOO COMMON. These guzzling life styles of he whom has the biggest McMansion wins…This isn’t sustainable. Millenials care about this. Gives me hope.

Mar 21, 2014
10:39 AM

The problem is that we can never know in advance if a decision is appropriate in 5, 10, or 100 years. We can heap up the studies and the scientific explanations and it won’t make a lick of difference, because those studies will betray the same cognitive biases as the researchers.

That is why the only way out of this mess is to start thinking in larger holistic contexts. Until that happens we’re going to struggle with short term failing solutions that leave things in a bigger mess each year.

Mar 21, 2014
8:41 AM

WELL SAID, SIR! Thank you!

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