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Recently, gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown visited a San Diego biofuel company to make the point that he favored the continuation of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.
This is more than just run-of-the-mill, feel-good politicking. For San Diegans the environment is big business. As a city that has emerged as one of the leaders in biofuels research, a potential governor’s position on emissions controls will have a large impact on the bio-fuel industry. In San Diego, environmentalism is good for business.
But, even as the prospect of suspending emissions controls weighs heavily on the future of bio-fuel, it may not spell the end of environmental intervention into global warming. The growing field of geo-engineering — global scale technological interventions — also has a home in San Diego.
Dr. Lynn Russell, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, is among the leaders in researching the potentially useful climate effects of — believe it or not — aerosols. What scientists know (through the study of Volcanic eruptions, for instance) is that these particles, in massive quantities, have the capacity to create temporary cooling effects by reflecting the sun’s heat away from the earth. How, exactly, this works is at the heart of Russell’s work.
So why does this matter for us? Because there are some who propose that we could slow global warming by intentionally injecting aerosol particles into the stratosphere on a global scale.
But it is not perfect. It is not a fix. It is only a stop-gap measure. It could buy us some very valuable time, but it does not solve the problem that the burning of fossil fuels creates. In order for it to work in the long term, it would have to go hand in hand with reduction measures.
And there are other concerns. While this method of cooling the earth has some existing examples in nature for scientists to study carefully ahead of time (unlike proposals to place reflective mirrors outside of the earth’s atmosphere, for example), there are still many unknowns.
And what we do know suggests that this approach would come with some costs.
It is likely to change precipitation patterns. How that will affect ecosystems worldwide is difficult to fully predict.
There is likely to be damage to the ozone layer. This is, after all, aerosols.
It will also require repeated, ongoing aerosol particle delivery into the atmosphere. And that may require world-wide cooperation — even after some areas of our planet may experience negative side effects.
Still, proponents argue that this could buy us enough time to reduce our emissions before we hit certain “tipping points” in the process of global warming. Once the global ice cap is melted, it is much, much more difficult to turn back the global warming clock. Aerosols may forestall such an occurrence. Also, we may reach a point where we decide that the side effects of aerosols are preferable to the effects of global warming.
To be fair, at this early stage, with so many unknowns still to be puzzled through, no credible scientist would argue to implement this approach now. But the research into aerosols in the environment is active, and this particular application remains a credible possibility for the future.
If the geo-engineering approach to global warming — by its very nature — makes you uneasy, consider that it may be because the narrative of modern environmentalism has centered on opposition to large-scale, industrial intervention into the environment. The idea, roughly, is that our modern industrial engineering has lead us down the path of global, environmental destruction, and the way out is through a rejection of the more is more, bigger is better mentality.
Geo-engineering is big.
Those most supportive of environmental intervention generally are likely to be very skeptical, no matter the evidence, of geo-engineering solutions to global warming.
Ironically, those who might be more disposed to attempt complex, industrial-scale means to deal with global warming are often, in the U.S. at least, spun from the same cloth as those who have denied or been highly skeptical of the very existence of global warming.
Philosophically, geo-engineering challenges us.
Here in San Diego, so close to the research and innovation that may shape the future of the planet, we have the unique opportunity to attend lectures and forums and to participate in the public debate. But with that comes a responsibility to vote — not just for the governor of California, but for the global, environmental future that we believe in.
A public discussion of this topic will be held Wednesday, October 6, at the Ethics Center.
Tate Hurvitz is an assistant professor of English at Grossmont College and a fellow at the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. He lives in Chula Vista.