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

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most