What Is Geoengineering? … and Why It’s a ‘Break Glass’ Plan

Climate intervention is laden with risk, but researchers are gingerly exploring the options

October 08, 2021 | Source: Yale Climate Connections | by Bob Henson

Everyday wisdom tells us it’s much better to avoid a problem than to try to fix it afterward. That’s one reason cutting greenhouse emissions is by far the preferred option for limiting climate change.

Yet society has dragged its collective heels on climate action for decades, and it’s unclear whether the world will achieve the roughly 50% emission cuts this decade that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) deems essential to avert the worst consequences of a human-warmed planet.

Enter the notion of geoengineering. Often referred to as “climate intervention” or “climate-altering technologies”, geoengineering refers to the idea of messing with the climate system that humans have already been messing up – this time in an effort to turn back the clock and restabilize the climate.

As recently as the 1950s, when weather modification was on the ascent, there was a hyper-optimistic sense that humans might someday manage the climate too, as if twiddling knobs on a newfangled TV set. Famed researcher John von Neumann pondered the idea of using dark-colored material to hasten snowmelt and warm the local climate: “What power over our environment, over all nature, is implied!”

The environmental consciousness that took root in the 1970s led to broad skepticism about global-scale technological fixes. Even as global temperature (and climate awareness) rose steadily in the 1980s and 1990s, geoengineering was little discussed. The script flipped in 2006, when eminent atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen wrote a journal op-ed arguing that society might have to resort to blocking sunlight artificially in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.