Geo-engineering has the potential to destroy as well as preserve

The IPCC report has placed geongineering firmly on the agenda

Share

A former Government chief scientist once told me that we should always have a Plan B ready in case Plan A doesn’t work – or doesn’t happen. He was speaking in relation to the possibility of “geo-engineering” the climate if it becomes obvious that global warming is beginning to tip irrevocably towards a potentially dangerous state.

He could only say this once he was out of office of course because the official Government view at the time – as it is now – was that “there is no Plan B” in relation to climate change, that the only conceivable way of avoiding dangerous global temperature increases in the future is to curb the production of greenhouse gas emissions now.

Geo-engineering is defined as the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system in order to limit undesirable climate change, but it is seen by many as a technical fix too far. At its most outlandish, geo-engineering envisages putting giant mirrors in space to deflect incoming solar radiation, but it also includes more benign interventions, such as solar powered “artificial trees” in the desert for soaking up carbon dioxide in the air.

Despite the official view of there being no Plan B, however, last week’s fifth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has placed geo-engineering firmly on the agenda – even if the scientific panel rather denigrates the idea as probably unworkable and potentially dangerous. Nevertheless, for some critics of geo-engineering the mere mention of the concept in such an official and high-profile publication is enough to see red.

Indeed, the Canadian-based ETC Group of environmentalists, perceived a Russian-led conspiracy to subvert the IPCC process. Russia had insisted on the addition of  geo-engineering to the report and it is Russia where many geo-engineering projects are being tested, the ETC Group claims.

Before getting carried away with the inclusion for the first time of geo-engineering in an IPCC report, it is worth pointing out that the panel emphasises the inherent flaws of the proposals to counter rising temperatures. Deflecting sunlight with artificially created white clouds over the oceans, for instance, would do nothing to prevent the acidification of the oceans and, if it had to be stopped for any reason, global surface temperatures would soon rise again even higher than before.

In short, if we rely on a technical fix to combat climate change, rather than addressing the root problem, we could become addicted to the illusion that all is well when, in fact, all that we are doing is delaying the inevitable, while increasing the risk of some serious unintended consequences, which history tells us are never far away from big engineering proposals of this kind.

Take for instance the relatively small-scale geo-engineering project to divert the rivers running into the Aral Sea of the former Soviet Union. Half a century ago the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world with a thriving commercial fishery, but by 2007 it had declined to about 10 per cent of its original size, with fishing boats stranded in the middle of a toxic salt pan.

Soviet scientists diverted water from two rivers running into the Aral Sea to irrigate fields of cotton and other crops. But in the end they created a barren, dusty landscape where once there was a sea filled with wildlife. Toxins and salt blown from the Aral’s parched basement even threatened the very crops that the project was meant to generate.

So when some people talk about the possibility of “fixing” the climate with technological interventions rather than cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, let’s not forget history. Perhaps HM Government is right: there is no Plan B.

Carbon dioxide can be useful…

Talking of carbon dioxide, I have just returned from an interesting visit to the Czech Republic where health tourism, rather than being frowned upon, is positively encouraged.

What has this got to do with carbon dioxide, you may ask? Well one of the more curious, if not bizarre “medical” treatments you can buy is a dip in a dry bath of carbon dioxide. For 20 minutes or so you bathe everything below your waist (fully clothed) in an atmosphere of “natural” carbon dioxide pumped from underground sources.

It is said by those who sell it to cure a range of conditions and even acts like a dose of Viagra. Strictly in the interests of science I volunteered. I intend to publish my findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal – that is if I can find one prepared to overlook my limited set of data points.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Recruitment Genius: HVAC & Mechanical Service Estimator

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Yorkshire based firm looking to...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August  

Ferguson: The sad truth is that Michael Brown was killed because he was a black man

Bonnie Greer
A protestor poses for a  

Ferguson verdict: This isn't a 'tragedy'. This is part of a long-running genocide of black men in America

Otamere Guobadia
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty