Geoengineering – a serious alternative or a dangerous idea?

Geoengineering is a term used to describe techniques for large-scale manipulation of the climate to reduce the Earth's average temperature. These controversial ideas are now being debated more extensively. One proposal is to disperse sulfate particles into the stratosphere to block some of the incoming sunlight. But is this a serious alternative, or is the very idea dangerous? We pose this question to H. Orri Stefánsson, a philosopher and decision theorist at the Institute for Futures Studies who researches geoengineering.

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In the debate there are two camps. On one side are those who believe that these ideas should be explored, even if the technology is only seen as a last resort. On the other side are those who argue that just the idea of geoengineering could undermine efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and keep us locked into both an uncertain technology and continued fossil fuel burning.

Do you find this description of the debate accurate?

Yes. Some point out that reducing emissions comes with costs, and an alternative that allows us not to reduce emissions as much may make us less willing to accept these costs. Others argue that politicians and the oil industry might use geoengineering as an excuse not to do more to reduce emissions, but we still need to consider this emergency measure. This is because there is a risk that states may decide to test the technology even if, for example, Sweden thinks it's a bad idea.

What is your opinion?

I don't believe there are strong reasons to prevent research on the matter. The idea is already in the public consciousness, and we can't simply hope it will be forgotten. Furthermore, the technology may become necessary if we don't reduce emissions quickly enough. Additionally, more research doesn't necessarily mean that geoengineering will get closer to realization. Research may find that the negative effects are too significant, not only from a natural science perspective but also because it might be an impossible project for the global community to manage effectively.

Has interest in geoengineering increased in the research community?

Yes, I would say so. It started about 15 years ago, but in the last five years, it has gained even more momentum. Part of it is due to concern that we won't be able to reduce emissions quickly enough. More people realize that we are heading toward a potentially catastrophic situation. Moreover, today there are data simulations and research from volcanic eruptions showing that it's actually possible to reduce the average temperature relatively quickly with this technology. A combination of increased concern and more knowledge about geoengineering has driven up interest.

How likely is it for a state to attempt this?

If emissions don't significantly decrease in the coming years and more areas are affected by climate change, it's not unlikely that some state or group of states might feel desperate enough to try it. One reason is that the effect of injecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere would be rapid. If we succeed in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, it would take decades to see the effects, but according to some models, geoengineering could lower the average temperature in just a few months. That makes it a politically tempting idea. Moreover, compared to the estimated costs of reducing carbon emissions, it's relatively cheap.

On the other hand, the technology isn't quite there yet. In theory, particles could be released from airplanes, but such airplanes don't exist yet. Most companies that could manufacture them have ties to the United States, China, or Russia and produce mainly for their respective defense industries. So if China, Russia, or the USA don't want to pursue geoengineering, they can pressure these companies not to produce the airplanes even if other states want to buy them. That could slow down the process. Another factor that speaks against anyone trying this is the significant risks associated with the technology, and we can't really predict what will happen if it is deployed. 

Can geoengineering be undone if implemented?

It's probably difficult to undo it safely. If we stop injecting particles into the stratosphere while our emissions has increased, the average temperature would rise again very quickly, which is much worse than a gradual increase because neither societies nor ecosystems have time to adapt.

Is it even allowed to do this today?

There are United Nations agreements on a moratorium regarding the use and large-scale experiments of geoengineering. There may also be agreements between states. However, there are no binding agreements. Currently, most states are not sufficiently affected by the climate crisis to consider something as extremely risky. But it's conceivable that some states who are severely affected by climate disasters soon may view it as worth the risk. In that case, I don't believe there is anything that can literally prevent it.

At the Institute for Futures Studies (IFFS), research on geoengineering is conducted, partly within the Mimir Center for Long Term Futures Research program, and an additional interdisciplinary research group on geoengineering is planned. What questions are being investigated?

For instance, how international institutions and collaborations on geoengineering should be structured to prevent premature attempts. And if someone does attempt it, how should we respond? General questions about uncertainties are also studied - there are catastrophic risks associated with both climate change and geoengineering. There are also political and ethical questions about who should be involved in decision-making. In political theory, some argue that a decision is only legitimate if everyone affected by it can have a say. In this case, where literally everyone on Earth is affected, this isn't realistic. So, how can we create institutions for democratic representation in the matter of geoengineering? Additionally, because some parts of the world would be affected positively while others negatively, there are several questions about distribution and compensation.