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Geoengineering: SRM Is Not Worth the Risk, Essay Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1871

Essay

There are two primary types of geoengineering, both of which attack the global warming and pollution problem differently.  Firstly, and most dangerously, solar radiation management (SRM) aims to decrease the amount of solar radiation hitting the planet by using reflection methods to bounce the light away (Bala 1939).  Some examples of SRM include placing mirrors in space, which would reflect the light back into space rather than allowing it to come onto earth, using reflective aerosols and filling the stratosphere with them, or increase the reflectivity of marine clouds (1939).  The primary benefit of SRM is the fact that it is bold and new, and would be far more fast acting than its much slower counterpart; it would be easier to do on a large scale (given the more passive nature the processes hold), and far less upkeep would be necessary (1939). Carbon dioxide removal technology (CDR), on the other hand, aims to remove existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (Heyward 405) until a safe level of greenhouse gases has been obtained; such examples of action include ocean fertilization—in which iron amounts are increased, which in turn increases the amounts of carbon dioxide storage within plants (Caldeira & Kieth 59)—afforestation, and capturing carbon directly from ambient air (Buck, Gammon, & Preston 652). While CDR technology is more active in that many of the proposed actions require manpower, it is notably far safer and more predictable than SRM; it also attacks the issue of global warming at the source, and by taking out carbon dioxide—the primary problem—it is not simply dealing with a symptom (like SRM), it is handling the underlying condition (Bala 1939).  Geoengineering is primarily made up of these two processes—SRM and CDR—and while there is much to be said about the reliability and trustworthiness of CDR technology, there is absolutely no doubt that SRM utilization should be avoided at all costs. There are three primary issues with SRM technology, which include unequal benefits and downsides around the world, a failure to actually address the problem of increasing carbon dioxide, and the fact that SRM cannot be stopped without making things worse.  Overall, SRM is a very poor idea.

Major problems with SRM Geoengineering

Regarding SRM, there are three primary issues.  While the exact side effects of implementing SRM are unknown, some scientists predict that a) the potential effects of SRM will very likely vary from region to region, thus allowing some to benefit while others feel effects from the opposite side of the weather spectrum (Heyward 406), b) SRM would not be able to attack the underlying issues that drive global warming, including elevating carbon dioxide or ocean acidification as a result of that increase carbon dioxide (Bala 1940), and c) the discontinuation of SRM when carbon dioxide levels are high (which is likely, considering the fact that SRM does nothing to attack carbon dioxide issues) would result in rapid climate warming that is much faster than the warming plaguing the world, today (Bala 1940).

Regional differences in SRM side effects have been predicted. Alan Robock of Rutgers University writes about SRM technology and potential side effects, and one of the side effects he discusses is the variability in climate around the world.  Stratospheric cloud injection—which includes pumping aerosols into the stratosphere in order to create similar effects as a volcanic eruption, with the main goal being to decrease the amount of energy reaching earth from the sun—has major, predicted side effects, one of which includes a “reduction of summer monsoon precipitation over India and China” (202). Because research has shown that cloud injection (and other SRM measures) is linked to decreased hydrological cycle intensity, a reduction in precipitation in certain regions of the world is expected, and there is a heavy chance that the average, worldwide precipitation will go down (Svoboda & Irvine 159). In the event of decreased precipitation worldwide, especially wet regions will benefit from SRM while the incredibly dry regions will further suffer; temperature will likely be affected as well, and while a decrease in temperature would largely benefit the areas of the world that are more strongly affected by global warming, the already-freezing nations will hurt (160).  When we add the fact that the exact side effects of SRM use cannot be directly identified prior to its use, this makes everything all the more dangerous; if there were a worldwide poll regarding whether or not to utilize SRM technology, the maximum amount of information that could be provided would not even cover a fraction of some of the possible side effects.  Some nations will benefit while others will be at a major disadvantage, and given that many third world countries are suffering from drought (resulting in decreased agriculture), SRM would likely play a role in making poorer, already-disadvantage countries even worse off.

SRM does not truly address the problems of global warming. SRM, while it is useful in lowering the temperature of the earth, does not truly get to the root of the global warming problem: increasing carbon dioxide, which increases the acidity of oceans. Ocean acidification is attributed to “reduced calcification” and “enhanced dissolution of shelled organisms,” which make up large parts of the ocean ecosystem (Russell, et. al 362); if the shelled creatures in the ocean are killed off from increasing acidity, the entire ecosystem will be thrown out of whack.  Because utilizing SRM without any addition carbon dioxide control would allow the acidification of the ocean to progress unchecked, the problem of ocean ecosystem destruction, a major part of the global warming problem, would not be addressed in the slightest.  If SRM was put in use while carbon dioxide amount continued to increase, the usefulness of SRM would slowly diminish until we find ourselves back in the original position; because carbon dioxide holds in heat, if it is not dealt with accordingly it will continue absorbing the heat from the sun whether SRM is being used or not.  SRM may fight one of the symptoms of having too much carbon dioxide in that it cools the earth, but it does not deal with the true problem, rendering it to be nothing more than a stalling device.

If SRM were terminated, the issues would become far worse. Because SRM does not tackle the true issue at hand and only delays the inevitable, carbon dioxide will increase in the atmosphere regardless of SRM’s utilization.  Because SRM will only provide cooling if it is consistently being renewed, termination of the process will “result in very rapid warming, and large and rapid changes in circulatory patterns and precipitation” (Russell, et. al 362).  Given how much ecosystems have responded to present day warming (which is fairly gradual in comparison to that which would occur under cessation of SRM), adaptation to such a large change as one under SRM’s termination would likely alter community structure of these ecosystems, affect biogeochemical cycles, and might lead to an accelerated permafrost thaw where permafrost is prevalent (362).  Under present conditions, a few examples of massive and quick effects of global warming lie in the fact that in 2003, more than 40,000 people died in Europe due to an overly hot summer; the precipitation was “50% below average,” which resulted in a decrease in agricultural and gross primary product (362).  If such drastic effects from global warming can be seen when there is more time for adjustment, the rapidly heating earth following SRM termination would prove to be even more lethal.

Svoboda and Irvine raise an ethical question related to the effects of SRM termination and inquire about SRM’s worth.  There is a great chance, they argue, that the result of SRM discontinuation would cause an increase in global temperature “at a rate much higher than if geoengineering had not been initiated” in the first place (160).  Given that information, there are ethical concerns raised when the possibility that the generation affected by such a rapid raise in temperature may not even be the same generation that began SRM in the first place; perhaps one hundred years down the line, SRM will be terminated and the generation on earth at that point will be the one suffering from the effects.  The thought of compensation comes up quite often in geoengineering research and debate, and the primary question is: if something goes wrong and there are people negatively impacted by the use of SRM, should they be compensated? Who should be compensating them? How much compensation should be provided?  Svoboda and Irvine tackle these questions with difficulty and they highlight the “ethical caveats” that plague the idea of compensation (169).  For instance, if someone were to die because of SRM termination or other side effects of its initiation, how could they be compensated?  By promising compensation, is one not doing the equivalent of licensing oneself to inflict harm on other people with the contract to “pay them back” somehow?  Compensation is obviously imperfect and the risks involved with SRM implementation reach far and wide; there are many risks and side-effects that might occur while SRM is in action, but there are also potential dangers to taking SRM out of action; this provides a perfectly horrific and inescapable cycle of dangers, risks, and side effects that is simply not worth beginning.

Conclusion

The global warming problem plaguing earth today is growing worse by the minute, and scientists around the world agree that something needs to change in order to save the world.  While geoengineering has been suggested by scientists aiming to cure the global warming problem, there are certainly many issues that come right along, as well; while CDR’s strength and weaknesses could be further evaluated by any scholar, SRM has been illustrated to be unreliable, dangerous, and impossible to escape after implementation.  Not only does SRM fail to attack the problem at the source (being the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the air and oceans), it would likely result in unequal benefits and downfalls around the world, and its general unpredictability proves to be dangerous.  If SRM is in full swing and humans decide to stop it due to awful side effects, stopping the system would cause worse global warming than we are seeing present day.  Overall, SRM is a very bad idea, and while global warming is a serious issue, it cannot be solved by something as irresponsible and unpredictable as SRM.

Works Cited

Bala, G. “Should We Choose Geoengineering To Reverse Global Warming?” Current Science 107.12 (2014): 1939-1940. Web. 27 November 2015.

Buck, Holly Jean, Andrea R. Gammon, & Christopher J. Preston. “Gender and Geoengineering.” Hypatio 29.3 (2014): 251-667. Web. 27 November 2015.

Calderia, Ken & David W. Keith. “The Need For Climate Engineering Research. Issues in Science and Tehcnology (Fall 2010): 57-62.

Heyward, Clare. “Benefitting From Climate Geoengineering and Corresponding Remedial Duties: The Case of Unforeseeable Harms.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 31.4 (2014): 405-417. Web. 27 November 2015.

Robock, Alan. “Will Geoengineering With Solar Radiation Management Ever Be Used?” Ethics, Policy, and Environment 15.2 (2012): 202-205. Web. 27 November 2015.

Russell, Lynn M, et. al. “Ecosystem Impacts of Geoengineering: A Review for Developing a Science Plan.” AMBIO 41 (2012): 350-369.  Web. 27 November 2015.

Svobda, Toby & Peter Irvine. “Ethical and Technical Challenges in Compensating for Harm Due to Solar Radiation Management Geoengineering. Ethics, Policy, and Environment 17.2 (2014): 157-174. Web. 27 November 2015.

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