Altering environments to suit our needs is not new. From clearing land to building dams, we've done it throughout history. When our technologies and populations were limited, our actions affected small areas -- though with some cascading effects on interconnected ecosystems.
We've now entered an era in which humans are a geological force. According to the website Welcome to the Anthropocene, "There are now so many of us, using so many resources, that we're disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology by which elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and atmosphere. We're changing the way water moves around the globe as never before. Almost all the planet's ecosystems bear the marks of our presence."
One of our greatest impacts is global warming, fuelled by massive increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning oil, coal and gas. Thanks in part to self-preserving industrialists, complicit governments and deluded deniers, we've failed to take meaningful action to address the problem, even though we've known about it for decades. Many now argue the best way to protect humanity from the worst effects is to further alter Earth's natural systems through geoengineering.
Geoengineering to combat climate change is largely untested. Because we've stalled so long on reducing carbon emissions and still aren't doing enough, we may have to consider it. What will that mean?
As it relates to climate change, geoengineering falls into two categories: solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. The former involves reflecting solar radiation back into space. The latter is aimed at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it.
Solar radiation management includes schemes such as releasing sulphur aerosols into the atmosphere to scatter sunlight and reduce radiation, creating or whitening clouds by spraying seawater or other materials into the air, and even installing giant reflectors in space. These methods don't affect CO2 levels and so don't address issues like ocean acidification, but they offer possible quick fixes to reduce warming.
An example of carbon removal is fertilizing oceans with iron. Iron stimulates growth of small algae called phytoplankton, which remove carbon dioxide from the sea and release oxygen through photosynthesis. This allows the oceans to absorb additional CO2 from the atmosphere. When the plankton die and sink to the ocean floor, they become buried under other materials, storing the carbon within them.
The Alberta and federal governments have spent billions on their favoured carbon-reduction method, carbon capture and storage -- trapping CO2 released by burning fossil fuels and pumping it into the ground -- but this method has yet to be perfected.
Many schemes are controversial and have shown mixed results in tests, and the danger of unintended consequences is real, including further catastrophic, irreversible damage to the climate system.
One major drawback with geoengineering is the mistaken idea that it can be a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. That many geoengineering projects are fraught with danger and would not resolve the problem quickly enough or even effectively -- and would do little or nothing to resolve other fossil fuel problems such as pollution -- makes this a critical concern.
There's also the matter of who would decide what methods to apply and when and where. The issue of "rogue" geoengineering has also cropped up in my part of the world, when an American businessman working with the Haida village of Old Massett dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the ocean in 2012 for a salmon restoration and carbon-reduction project.
A U.K. Royal Society study concludes that geoengineering "should only be considered as part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change" and carbon dioxide reduction methods should be preferred over more unpredictable solar radiation management.
Scientists at the Berlin Social Science Research Centre suggest creating "a new international climate engineering agency...to coordinate countries' efforts and manage research funding."
Because some geoengineering is likely unavoidable, that's a good idea. But rather than rationalizing our continued use of fossil fuels in the false belief that technology will enable us to carry on with our destructive ways, we really need governments, scientists and industry to start taking climate change and greenhouse gas emissions seriously. We can't just engineer our way out of the problem.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.
Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.
Researchers in Britain have found that <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22076055" target="_blank">climate change could cause increased turbulence</a> for transatlantic flights by between 10 and 40 percent by 2050. (ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/GettyImages)
A 2012 study from the U.S. Forest Service found that without "major adaptation efforts," parts of the U.S. are likely to see "<a href="http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/42363" target="_blank">substantial future water shortages</a>." Climate change, especially for the Southwest U.S., can both <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/02/25/1638541/study-climate-change-dry-up-us-reservoirs-lake-powell-lake-mead" target="_blank">increase water demand and decrease water supply</a>.
Research by British government found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/somalia-famine-climate-change_n_2883088.html" target="_blank">climate change may have contributed to a famine in East Africa</a> that killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people in 2010 and 2011. At least 24 percent of the cause of a lack of major rains in 2011 can be attributed to man-made greenhouse gases, Met Office modeling showed. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
The <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/25/frozen-spring-arctic-sea-ice-loss" target="_blank">dramatic and rapid loss of sea ice in recent years</a> has consequences beyond the Arctic. Scientists have found the melting shifts the position of the Jet Stream, bringing cold Arctic air further south and increasing the odds of intense snow storms and extreme spring weather.
Research indicates that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide <a href="http://www.onearth.org/blog/poison-ivy-climate-change" target="_blank">result in larger poison ivy plants</a>. Even worse, climate change will mean that the plant's irritating oil will also get more potent.
The <a href="http://www.livescience.com/28320-climate-change-allergies.html" target="_blank">spring 2013 allergy season could be one of the worst ever</a>, thanks to climate change. Experts say that increased precipitation, along with an early spring, late-ending fall and higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide may bring more pollen from plants and increased mold and fungal growth.
North American alligators require a certain temperature range for survival and reproduction, traditionally limiting them to the southern U.S. <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/animal_forecast/2013/02/alligators_in_virginia_climate_change_could_be_pushing_cold_blooded_species.single.html" target="_blank">But warming temperatures could open new turf</a> to gators with more sightings farther north.
High in the Peruvian Andes, parts of the world's largest tropical ice sheet have melted at an unbelievable pace. Scientists found that significant <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/world/americas/1600-years-of-ice-in-perus-andes-melted-in-25-years-scientists-say.html" target="_blank">portions of the Quelccaya Ice Cap that took over 1,600 years to form have melted in only 25 years</a>. (Perito Moreno Glacier pictured)
Along with other agricultural impacts, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/climate-change-wine_n_3039673.html" target="_blank">climate change may have a dramatic effect on the world's most famous winemaking regions</a> in coming decades. Areas suitable for grape cultivation may shrink, and temperature changes may impact the signature taste of wines from certain regions.
Thanks to climate change, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/blog/polar-arctic-greenland-ice-climate-change" target="_blank">low-lying island nations may have to evacuate</a>, and sooner than previously expected. Melting of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets has been underestimated, scientists say, and populations in countries like the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu and others may need to move within a decade.
Warmer winters in northern latitudes could mean <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2013/01/18/hamilton-climate-change-rinks.html" target="_blank">fewer days for outdoor hockey</a>. An online project called RinkWatch aims to collect data on the condition of outdoor winter ice rinks in Canada and the northern U.S. and educate people on the impacts of climate change.
Experts speculate that <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/08/100806-oyster-herpes-global-warming-climate-change-science/" target="_blank">warming oceans may have played a part in a strain of herpes</a> that has killed Pacific oysters in Europe in recent years.
As Arctic ice melts and polar bears see more of their habitat disappear, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/14/polar-bears-turn-brown-climate-change_n_2878684.html" target="_blank">animals could lose their famous white coats</a>. Researchers have already witnessed polar bears hybridizing with their brown cousins, but note that it would take thousands of years from them to adapt themselves out of existence.
Climate change means warmer winters in northern latitudes and a shorter ski season. By 2039, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/us/climate-change-threatens-ski-industrys-livelihood.html" target="_blank">more than half of the Northeast's ski resorts</a> will not be able to maintain a 100-day season, according to the New York Times. Ski areas will be less likely to receive regular snowfall, and warmer daily low temperatures mean fewer opportunities for snowmaking.
Apples produced in one Himalayan state of India are already losing their taste and even turning sour, experts say. <a href="http://zeenews.india.com/news/eco-news/arunachal-apples-losing-taste-due-to-climate-chang_831169.html" target="_blank">Increased rainfall and erratic weather in the region mean less than ideal conditions</a> for famously-sweet Kashmiri apples.
With climate change already impacting northern latitudes, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/sports/warm-weather-forces-changes-ahead-of-iditarod-race.html" target="_blank">warmer winters in Alaska could mean less than ideal conditions</a> for the famous Iditarod sled dog race. “It definitely has us concerned,” a musher and Iditarod spokeswoman who's already breeding dogs with thinner coats told The New York Times.
<a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/11/121108-climate-change-coffee-coffea-arabica-botanical-garden-science/" target="_blank">Climate change may dramatically shrink the area suitable for coffee cultivation</a> by the end of the century and cause the extinction of Arabica coffee plants in the wild. Starbucks has already declared that "<a href="http://www.starbucks.com/responsibility/environment/climate-change" target="_blank">Addressing climate change is a priority</a>."
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