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A critical look at geoengineering

In 2014, a nonprofit called ICE 911 was founded, aiming to implement what its founder, Leslie Fields, described as an “embarrassingly simple” plan to mitigate the effects of climate change. The idea was to cover the Arctic in tiny beads of glass, in the hope that the reflective material might force heat back into the atmosphere and effectively slow ice melt.

Now under new management and renamed the Arctic Ice Project, the company has drawn criticism from Indigenous activists, among others, for operating without local input and, quite frankly, for being a dumb idea.

“There are too many dimensions that are not considered,” Pangaanga Pangawyi, the geoengineering organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, told the Nome Nugget in June. “It’s very reckless, and there’s no way to answer those questions until you deploy it.”

That’s the fundamental problem with geoengineering — most schemes are impossible to test theoretically and deploying many of them practically could be catastrophic.

Solar geoengineering projects, such as Bill Gates’ SCoPEx, have drawn the most criticism because the side effects could be drastic — harming human health, causing crop shortages, generally depressing everyone by turning the skies white year round, the list goes on. To make matters worse, once you start shooting aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the planet you essentially can’t stop. The moment solar geoengineering is halted, temperatures would begin to rise much faster than if climate change had simply run its course.

“As the planet’s been warming for the last 100 years, and as it will in the future, some species can adapt to gradual change. But if some have to suddenly move to adapt to a new climate regime, they might not be able to move fast enough,” Alan Robock, a professor of environmental science at Rutgers, told The Atlantic in 2018.

Other geoengineering strategies — reforestation for example — are more benign, but also potentially less effective. Trees are susceptible to wildfires, which are increasing rapidly as climate change causes widespread drought. Amid these concerns, the idea of industrial carbon capture has been presented by lawmakers and corporations as a sort of compromise.

The Biden Administration came into office calling for net zero emissions by 2035 and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was signed into law in August, attempts to make good on that promise through a variety of tax credits that will bolster both clean energy and carbon capture and sequestration.

In its current iteration, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is mainly used by oil companies, which capture their own emissions, store them underground, and use them to pump more oil, in a process known as enhanced oil recovery. Thus far, it’s mostly been economically unviable.

The Petra Nova coal plant in Texas, the world’s largest carbon capture project, closed in 2020 as crude oil prices sank early in the pandemic and was recently sold to a Japanese oil company. Another high profile venture, the San Juan Generating Station, has yet to get off the ground. Direct air capture — extracting carbon directly from the atmosphere, without the go-between of an oil or gas plant  — doesn’t really exist on a meaningful scale at present, with only eighteen plants currently operational worldwide.

Many environmental justice advocates argue that CCS is essentially a ploy on the part of the extractive industry to delay the transition to renewable energy and postpone the death of oil and gas. This is often true, but some argue that environmentalists need to get ahead of the industry while it’s still experiencing birth pangs.

“Climate advocates who are on the fence about carbon removal have an alternative to simply resisting these technologies or embracing the Wild West of carbon removal enterprises,” Holly Jean Buck, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Andrew Bergman, and Toly Rinberg, argue in The New Republic. “We can collectively build a justice- and worker-centered public model for deploying this climate-critical infrastructure.”

— Rebecca McCarthy