Should higher education advance or oppose geoengineering?
As the climate crisis deepens, geoengineering options are in the air. My question for today is: should academia support and advance geoengineering research, development, and deployment, or should higher education do its best to resist any such efforts?
To explain: refers to artificial interventions into the total Earth system in order to reduce global warming. There are many ways we can mount such projects. Altering the brightness of clouds or oceans could bounce back some solar radiation into space. Many and/or large mirrors orbiting the Earth could intercept some solar radiation. Seeding the oceans with iron could encourage algal blooms or more phytoplankton, which like to eat carbon dioxide, then plummet to seabeds bearing their carbon cargo. Launching aerosols, such as sulfates, into the stratosphere could reduce the amount of energy reaching the Earth’s surface.
(To be clear: yes, the term “geoengineering” can cover other projects, including some humanity has already done, like damming a river. In this post we’re just focused on the climate change aspect. If it helps, think of these projects as solar radiation management (SRM) or , since they focus on adjusting how much the Earth receives from the sun. Direct air capture of CO2 could fall under this header, but I’m saving that for another post. Also, we’re not going to talk about conspiracy theories this time, please. (Ye gods but does Flick have a ton of “chemtrail” photos))
It’s easy to summarize the arguments in favor of such megaprojects. They could reduce global warming, if done properly. Proponents also argue that seeding clouds or feeding plankton is much cheaper than revolutionizing the energy foundations of human civilization.
There are more arguments against the idea. First, I wrote “done properly”; the potential for getting things wrong is vast. Imagine throwing a region into drought, or pelting another with enormous rainfall, or sending temperatures in the wrong direction. Second is the problem of governance. Since there’s no Planetary Modification Authority, there’s little to stop one nation, a rogue billionaire, or anyone else who scrapes together the means from mounting a big project… and then we’re back to things going wrong, accidentally or deliberately. Third, if a geoengineering project succeeds, we would have to maintain it indefinitely. If we don’t, the solution ceases (mirrors de-orbit, clouds aren’t seeded) and temperatures rise right up. Fourth, a moral hazard problem appears if a successful SRM project reduces interest in decarbonizing our power systems.
There is a lot more to say about the topic, but here I want to focus on just one piece of it: higher education’s role. What will academia do to contribute to geoengineering?
Let me offer several possibilities.
A) Colleges and universities play a leading role in making geoengineering happen. Our research can envision how it might work, and how to do it well, from engineering fields to political science. Our development capacity can yield field tests and prototypes, which others (business, government) can take up. And we can play a public role in urging such entities to get it done as a way of reducing climate harm.
B) Academia actively opposes geoengineering. Our research and teaching can explore the many ways such projects could go wrong; I summarized a few up above. Then we can use that knowledge to enter the public arena to block such efforts. Individual researchers can urge humanity against hacking the world. Perhaps universities or associations thereof could lobby politicians to promulgate a SRM ban.
That’s a pretty stark either-or, A/B. Let me add other options:
C) We remain neutral, overall. Yes, geoengineering appears in certain classes. Yes, some faculty publish papers on the topic. But we don’t exit the ivory tower in battle mode. Either the academic world doesn’t see this as something we should go public about, or we can’t muster a consensus for a stand.
D) Academia is all over the place. Some professors run podcasts to urge cloud brightening while others make YouTube videos claiming that would wreck parts of the world. Some campuses host R&D projects, on-site or elsewhere, while students from others stage marches in national capitals. Classes in campuses around the world offer a range of views.
I’m partial to D) myself, but I’d like to hear from you all. Which route do you think higher education will take? And which path should we pursue?