Geoengineering - Man-handling the planet?

12th April 2012


Related Topics

Related tags

  • Mitigation ,
  • Natural resources



Richard Campen asks if it is right to interfere with the Earth's natural systems through geoengineering to avoid climate change

Geoengineering concerns the intentional manipulation of the environment in order to moderate global warming. An example would be the dispersal of sulphate aerosols in the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight. The methods of geoengineering raise many questions about their likely effectiveness, possible side effects and international governance.

The Guardian reported recently that a small group of climate scientists, with backing from figures such as Bill Gates, were lobbying governments to back experiments that manipulate the climate as a way of avoiding catastrophic global warming. Considering what we know of human impacts on the environment, is it right to further interfere with the Earth’s natural systems?

Moral hazard

Many environmentalists are worried about manipulating the climate, even if the goal is to prevent climate change. For example, a British project, Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE), was postponed in October 2011 due to objections from environmental groups.

The SPICE experiment involved pumping water through a hose to a balloon and dispersing droplets one kilometre above the Earth’s surface. The plan was to eventually pump sulphate aerosols to even higher altitudes to reflect sunlight and cool the planet. The postponement was somewhat lightheartedly reported as “SPICE on ice”. Nevertheless, the experiment is an example of geoengineering research, an area of technology that is set to develop.

The methods of geoengineering fall into two main categories: solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. The former might include techniques such as “cloud seeding”, a kind of weather modification, and space sunshades, which divert the Sun’s rays.

Carbon dioxide removal techniques include fertilisation of the sea with iron, to stimulate the growth of algae and the capture of CO₂. Geoengineering methods might prove ineffective, have unknown side effects or even be used as weapons. Also, it is not known how these “technologies” would be governed.

A US task force on climate remediation research has published Geoengineering: A national strategic plan for research on the potential effectiveness, feasibility, and consequences of climate remediation technologies. It follows the UK Royal Society’s 2009 publication Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance and uncertainty.

Both publications propose mitigation and adaptation strategies as priorities, but recognise the uncertainties associated with geoengineering. Both also emphasise the issue of international governance. It is a fact that the technologies exist and there are calls for further research into them, but the social and environmental impacts of most geoengineering methods have not yet been adequately evaluated.

As the dominant species on Earth, human beings have exploited and manipulated the natural environment to get to where we are now. Humans have sought to produce the best outcomes for their species en route to a seven-billion-plus population. Around the globe, humans have drained, irrigated, cleared, levelled and reclaimed land in the name of development.

For many populations these actions have improved overall public health and wellbeing. Some of the general outcomes have been as planned (such as food production), but many have generated new problems, such as desertification, dust storms, flooding and pollution. Each adverse consequence presents health and environmental challenges which are addressed by a combination of short-term measures – for example, dealing with the immediate effects of famine and outbreaks of disease – and longer-term measures, such as legislation for conservation and controlling pollution.

Patchy record

In environmental terms, the track record of the human species is certainly not good; we are seeing a dramatic decline in biodiversity as a result of the increase in the human population and there is general scientific consensus that our exploitation of fossil fuels will cause climate change to some degree.

From an environmental and health perspective, the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that the damage to human health caused by environmental changes may be mitigated through strategies that reduce the driving forces of consumption, population increase and inappropriate technology use.

The last item, “use of technology”, should be of great interest to environmentalists and engineers alike, especially in the context of the ongoing debate about the appropriateness of geoengineering options and their potential impact on people and the planet.

We already struggle with the uncertain consequences on human health and wellbeing of exploiting and manipulating the environment, and of climate change. Humans’ abstract reasoning and problem-solving characteristics are leading us inextricably towards the moral and ethical challenges surrounding the new ways in which we can manipulate the environment through geoengineering methods.

A group of scientists have identified nine “planetary boundary processes” as part of a framework for global sustainability, namely: climate change; rate of biodiversity loss; interference with nitrogen and phosphorous cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading. They propose these Earth system boundaries provide a safe operating space for humanity.

The question arises as to why human beings think they can or should further interfere with these systems? Especially bearing in mind what we already know about their importance in relation to our health and welfare, and that of the environment.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

A social conscience

With a Taskforce on Inequality and Social-related Financial Disclosures in the pipeline, Beth Knight talks to Chris Seekings about increased recognition of social sustainability

6th June 2024

Read more

Disinformation about the impossibility of averting the climate crisis is part of an alarming turn in denialist tactics, writes David Burrows

6th June 2024

Read more

David Symons, FIEMA, director of sustainability at WSP, and IEMA’s Lesley Wilson, tell Chris Seekings why a growing number of organisations are turning to nature-based solutions to meet their climate goals

6th June 2024

Read more

A system-level review is needed to deliver a large-scale programme of retrofit for existing buildings. Failure to do so will risk missing net-zero targets, argues Amanda Williams

31st May 2024

Read more

Chris Seekings reports from a webinar helping sustainability professionals to use standards effectively

31st May 2024

Read more

Although many organisations focus on scope 1 and 2 emissions, it is vital to factor in scope 3 emissions and use their footprint to drive business change

31st May 2024

Read more

IEMA submits response to the Future Homes Standard consultation

31st May 2024

Read more

What is the role for nature in the Climate Change Act? Sophie Mairesse reports

20th May 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close