Geoengineers: Blinded by Science

article image
image by Jon Reinfurt /

High-tech fixes are increasingly being applied to all sorts of problems–why not climate change? That’s basically the pitch for geoengineering, which proposes not that humans change their behavior but that we change the way the planet operates. Techno-optimistic scientists have dreamed up schemes that include spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight and building synthetic trees to capture carbon dioxide and turn it into a liquid to be stored underground. One scientist wants to launch a trillion mirrors into a stable orbit between Earth and the sun to create a gigantic space umbrella. (Cue the John Williams score.)

Mainstream speculation concerning geoengineering is usually confined to whether these futuristic fixes will work. The more grave and pressing question, Jason Mark suggests in Earth Island Journal (Autumn 2009), is whether we ought to be attempting them at all. He believes that even thinking that these scientists can manage Earth’s natural systems signals a twisted hubris steeped in cynicism.

“Geoengineering,” he writes in his story “Hacking the Sky,” “has become the refuge of the cynic. It assumes that although we may be able to alter how the planet works, we are incapable of changing the way we run the world.”

Even if geoengineering showed some success, it would present practical and ethical challenges, if only because these “fixes” could yield troubling inequities. Pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, for instance, might cool the globe. It could also lead to decreased monsoon rains over Asia. So who decides whether the ends justify the means? And who would be at the controls? Governments? Corporations? Both scenarios portend frightening possibilities.

“For 20 years, we have understood the consequences of pumping the atmosphere full of CO2, and still we persist. We crossed a moral line long ago,” Mark writes.

“Our double bind is this: Either we keep our hands off the sky, and hope we act in time . . . or we try our luck at playing Zeus, knowing that it could make matters worse. No matter what, we risk losing Creation.”

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.