“If society ultimately decides to intervene in Earth’s climate, any actions should be informed by a far more substantive body of scientific research, including ethical and social dimensions, than is presently available,” says a new report from the National Research Council.
The researchers examined two primary techniques for climate intervention—albedo modification and carbon dioxide removal/sequestration. Proposed climate intervention techniques are unreliable and unable to do what would be necessary. They are too costly and not ready for wide-scale deployment
With regard to carbon dioxide removal and sequestration, the committee recommended wide-scale research initiatives to address the myriad of problems facing existing technology, which at one point was simple described as immature, limited, and carrying serious environmental risks. Ultimately, the committee found that “most carbon dioxide removal strategies have limited technical capacity, and absent some unforeseen technological innovation, large-scale deployment would cost as much or more than replacing fossil fuels with low carbon-emission energy sources.”
The committee’s view on albedo-modification could be described as bearish, at best. The technology is dangerous and essentially an unknown. We lack the ability to effectively monitor the effects and there’s not really an on/off switch. As the committee put it, “in the absence of CO2 reductions, albedo-modification activities would need to be sustained indefinitely and at increasingly large scales to offset warming, with severe negative consequences if they were to be terminated. In addition, albedo modification introduces secondary effects on the ozone layer, precipitation patterns, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and human health, with unknown social, political, and economic outcomes. Present-day observational capabilities lack sufficient capacity to monitor the environmental effects of an albedo-modification deployment.”
University of Michigan researcher Joyce Penner serves on the committee. She is the Ralph J. Cicerone Distinguished University Professor of Atmospheric Science. In a press release, she says that “U.S. agencies may have been reluctant to fund this area because of the sense of what we call ‘moral hazard’—that if you start down the road of doing this research you may end up relying on this or condoning this as a way of saving the planet from the cost of decreasing CO2 emissions, but we’ve stated that decreasing emissions must go hand in hand with any climate intervention efforts. We need to develop the knowledge base to allow informed decisions before these dangerous effects are upon us.
For committee chair, Marcia McNutt, the very consideration of intervention is alarming. Emissions reduction remains the current best and most effective way to address mounting concern. “But the longer we wait, the more likely it will become that we will need to deploy some forms of carbon dioxide removal to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
Photo Credit: University of Michigan