Fear of Geoengineering Is Really Anxiety About Cutting Carbon

Typical climate discourse is already polarizing enough, but it’s nothing compared to talk of “geoengineering.” Mention the catch-all term for emerging technologies that could offset some of the effects of climate change, and watch the world split into two distinct camps.

You are either a techno-optimist with faith in unproven innovation, or you believe behavioral change is the key to stopping climate change. You are either for or against rapid action. That’s the impression left from perusing headlines on the topic or tuning into some of the loudest voices in the debate.

Confusion and polarization abound, because geoengineering—any type of geoengineering—is viewed through the same black-and-white lens as much of the rest of climate discourse.

Some of this fear is justified. Talk of solar geoengineering, in which technology would be used to reflect a portion of sunlight back into space and cool the planet, have indeed been used as a distraction by those opposed to climate action. In June 2008, at the height of the Obama-era push to pass comprehensive climate legislation, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich penned an opinion piece arguing how solar geoengineering means that CO₂ emissions cuts are not needed.

If only.

Neither solar geoengineering nor carbon removal—confusingly also often subsumed in the geoengineering category—are replacements for cutting CO₂ emissions. In the case of solar geoengineering this is because it simply is no replacement: at best, it’s a Band-Aid or perhaps a pain killer that quite literally masks the underlying problem of carbon pollution. The trouble with carbon removal, by contrast, is that currently it’s still very expensive. To the surprise of no one, it costs more to suck CO₂ out of thin air via chemical processes than to do so in concentrated form from smokestacks as part of carbon capture and storage technologies, or especially to avoid (most) CO₂ emissions in the first place.

Yes, planting trees and other “natural” climate solutions removes CO₂ from thin air. And yes, we should be planting many more trees and avoid cutting those now standing. But no, even planting a trillion trees alone will not do either. The Trillion Trees Act itself looks like a distraction from serious climate legislation.

Talk of trees, carbon removal, carbon capture, and solar geoengineering in the same breath shows how a lot of the confusion in the geoengineering debate comes about. Avowed opponents of (solar) geoengineering do themselves no favor by confusing things even further.

A recent map put together by Geoengineering Monitor and funded, in part, by the Heinrich Böll foundation affiliated with the German Green Party, lists over 1,500 “geoengineering” projects. Among the culprits: the International Energy Agency, just by looking into policy options for carbon capture. Another: New York City’s CoolRoofs Initiative, for painting roofs white to reflect back sunlight and cool the buildings underneath.

There is, of course, a clear difference between white rooftops dotting Brooklyn brownstones or Mediterranean villages on the one hand, and actual solar geoengineering research on the other. Research into whether deliberately introducing tiny reflective particles into the lower stratosphere could help cool the planet must spark a serious conversation about how far we have come—and how important it is to cut CO₂ and other greenhouse gas emissions instead of relying on an eventual technofix.

Many—perhaps most—of those opposed to geoengineering research are afraid of a “moral hazard” of sorts. Merely looking into geoengineering technologies, the logic goes, would be a distraction from cutting CO2 emissions. It must not be.

Instead, it’s precisely these kinds of conversations that ought to be channeled toward the exact opposite. If serious scientists are looking into these technologies, and often reluctantly so, perhaps climate change is indeed worse than most of the polarized public discourse seems to suggest. That means it’s high time to cut CO₂ emissions in order to avoid the worst, which might indeed create the dire need to deploy solar geoengineering at scale.

Gernot Wagner writes the Risky Climate column for Bloomberg Green. He teaches at New York University. His new book, Geoengineering: The Gamble, is out this fall. Follow him on Twitter: @GernotWagner. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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