On November, 10th, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted an event entitled Geoengineering for Decision Makers based on a report of the same name. The report was authored by Robert L. Olson and was released by the Science and Technology Innovation Program. David Rejeski, Jane Long, Robert L. Olson, and Tim Persons spoke at the event and discussed the state of the global environment, what geoengineering can do to reduce the impact of human activities, and the potential dangers of, and obstacles to, geoengineering.
Geoengineering is a scientific field that focuses on humanity’s ability to shape its environment with technological innovation. Our current climate is unstable and warming. The consensus within the scientific community is that the current warming is a direct result of man-made chemicals released into the atmosphere as by-products of manufacturing and industry. This release, too, would fall under the label of geoengineering, though greenhouse gas emissions are not intended to change the environment.
The report highlights a number of projects and the concerns regarding their impact. One potential solution is “fertilizing” the oceans by adding iron, nitrogen, or phosophates — chemicals that stimulate phytoplankton growth. The new phytoplankton would then absorb additional CO2 through photosynthesis. However, a large increase of phytoplankton may lead to a disruption of the oceanic carbon cycle and additional loss of aquaculture. Another idea is that suflate aerosols could be launched into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. However, the effects of sulfate aerosols and how they interact with the Earth system are not entirely understood. The aerosols could potentially return to Earth as acid rain or effect global participation patters. Moreover, politicians might regard the aerosols as “quick fixes,” and neglect the underlying industrial factors that worsen global warming.
The report stresses the need for both national and international governance on these issues. Geoengineering projects designed to decrease carbon levels or reflect more sunlight would have global as well as local effects. As it stands, the report notes, there is neither an international agreement about far-reaching geoengineering projects, nor an international body with the authority to test, control, and regulate geoengineering. Moreover, there are important legal and ethical concerns to consider when producing technology that has the potential to change the global environment. Governance is necessary to both provide legal and ethical research, and to prevent the co-option of geoengineering by entrenched corporate and military interests.