Geoengineering: Can Technology Save Us?

In the realm of climate science, there are two approaches to dealing with climate change- adaptation or mitigation. Adaptation argues that humans will have to adapt to the new warmer, more extreme climate in order to survive.

Mitigation is the most common, and it “refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases. Mitigation can mean using new technologies and renewable energies, making older equipment more energy efficient, or changing management practices or consumer behavior. It can be as complex as a plan for a new city, or as a simple as improvements to a cook stove design. Efforts underway around the world range from high-tech subway systems to bicycling paths and walkways”.

A new field of study that has been gaining momentum is geoengineering. Geoengineering is “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change”. Essentially, it is the idea that we can develop a technological solution to climate change that does not involve a change to human behavior. Admittedly, that is one the largest obstacles to taking meaningful action on climate change. It is very difficult to change human behavior on an individual level, much less on a global scale. Proponents of geoengineering suggest that while reduction of greenhouse gases is necessary, it will not be sufficient to prevent the dire effects of climate change. Therefore, they propose additional measures in terms of direct intervention to be coupled with more traditional mitigation tactics. Below is an image of some of the proposed geoengineering solutions.

Some proposed geoengineered solutions to climate change

Geoengineered solutions to climate change

However, there are understandable concerns when it comes to geoengineering, particularly in the area of unintended consequences. Is it really wise to deliberately alter the environment in some way? The ecosystem is such a complex, interdependent system, and altering one aspect may send the whole system into chaos. The argument could also be made that we are already indirectly undertaking geoengineering by contributing to climate change in the first place.

What do you think? Do you think that geoengineering is the solution that we have been waiting for, or do you think that it is too risky? Leave a comment below!

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Increasing Energy Efficiency Causing us to Consume More?

“Increasing efficiency is often the cheapest and easiest way to cut electricity and water consumption, but some lawmakers expressed concerns that stricter rules may backfire and undermine progress toward curbing emissions.”

Turns out that while there is some rebound (where individuals consume more energy because they know it is more efficient) the effects are minimal.

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Do you consume more when you think that you are consuming energy more efficiently? Leave a comment!

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Dust Bowl 2.0

A massive cloud of dust looms over Phoenix, Arizona during a dust strom in July 2012.

A massive cloud of dust looms over Phoenix, Arizona during a dust strom in July 2012.

More frequent droughts and more powerful storms are leading to more frequent and more severe dust storms in the United States. These so-called “dust emissions” have increased over the last 17 years. What are the effects of more dust in the air?

1. When the dust covers snow, it causes it to absorb more sunlight, which leads to faster snow melt. This is particularly the case in the Rockies.

2. Reduced visibility makes driving dangerous.

3. Of course, all of that dust in the air can cause respiratory problems.

4. Two upsides: the dust storms carry soil nutrients over further distances. It also helps cancel out the effects of acid rain.

We need to do more to combat soil erosion and drought conditions in the American Southwest, or dust storms will continue to become more frequent.

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A Milestone We Shouldn’t Celebrate

Back in May, we reached an important milestone in our impact on the environment, and hardly anyone heard about it. Carbon dioxide levels reached 400 parts per million (for every million molecules in the atmosphere, 400 were carbon dioxide) as an average for the entire day. This is the first time this has happened in at least three million years, long before homo sapiens walked the Earth. Essentially, this means that we are not doing much to slow climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The time to invest in alternative energy sources and sharply reduce our fossil fuel emissions was yesterday. 

“Indirect measurements suggest that the last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago, during an epoch called the Pliocene. Geological research shows that the climate then was far warmer than today, the world’s ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher. Experts fear that humanity may be precipitating a return to such conditions — except this time, billions of people are in harm’s way.”

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What is Global Warming?

I’m going to attempt to offer a simple answer to this question and how greenhouse gases contribute to the overall problem.

First, lets start with the four most important greenhouses gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. There have always been greenhouse gases on Earth, and without them life would not be possible. They trap in the heat from the Sun’s radiation, and Earth would be 60% cooler without them.

The problem? Emissions from transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and other activities have greatly increased the amount of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This means that more heat is being trapped on Earth, instead of escaping back into space in the form of infrared radiation. Since 1750, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased over 36 percent, methane has increased over 148 percent and nitrous oxide has increased over 18 percent. If we continue to produce greenhouse gases at even the current rate, by 2100 the average global temperature will likely increase 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (Information comes from National Geographic, link below).

This is where the term “global warming” comes from, though it may be better to call it climate change. Even if there is a particularly cold winter, the planet is still getting warmer than it would without humans. Much warmer. This warming leads to sea level rise as Arctic ice melts, which is a big problem given so many major cities are located virtually at sea level. For example, Venice, Italy is flooded on a near constant basis now. Another effect of this warming are more severe storms, such as Superstorm Sandy last October that rocked the eastern seaboard of the United States. New York City, one of the most densely populated cities on Earth, was underwater.

If we do not work to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, we will find more of our major cities underwater, permanently.

A 2005 computerized rendering by Dr. Wm. Robert Johnston, a research physicist, illustrates the United States’ geography should the polar ice caps melt.

A 2005 computerized rendering by Dr. Wm. Robert Johnston, a research physicist, illustrates the United States’ geography should the polar ice caps melt.

“The higher ocean levels would cover cities (and states) that are home to millions of people. Some of these places include Long Island, New York City, most of the giant sandbar known as Florida, New Orleans, Los Angeles and more.”

Map and story from:

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The Arctic & Climate Change

A large part of the Arctic is covered by permafrost, essentially frozen ground, that makes up almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere. However, it is warming at a rapid rate, which is bad news for the climate beyond rising sea levels. When permafrost melts, it releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane (both greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere. Methane is 22 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists are studying the effects of this melting to better predict how quickly the planet will change as a result of global warming.

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Mapping the Impacts of Climate Change

Concerned about what climate change could mean for your region? This interactive map shows which areas are at the greatest risk for sea level rise, extreme weather, and agricultural productivity loss. China and India are among the highest overall risk as a result of climate change. The map also illustrates which regions are the most vulnerable, which adjusts overall risk based on coping ability. Not surprisingly, Africa is the least able to cope with the negative effects of climate change. Find out how climate change is affecting where you live, and see why climate change will affect all of us, sooner or later.

Mapping the Impacts of Climate Change

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Life After People- Video

“What would happen to planet earth if the human race were to suddenly disappear forever? Would ecosystems thrive? What remnants of our industrialized world would survive? What would crumble fastest? From the ruins of ancient civilizations to present day cities devastated by natural disasters, history gives us clues to these questions and many more in the visually stunning and thought-provoking special Life After People.”

Click the link to view this documentary:

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Economics of Climate Change

A flooded NYC subway station.

A flooded NYC subway station during Hurricane Sandy.

2012 was a record year in the United States for a few reasons. First, it was the hottest year on record. Second, it was the second costliest year, with $110 billion spent as a result of climate disasters. Hurricane Sandy, the massive superstorm that hit the northeast United States in late October, cost a staggering $65 billion in damages alone. Droughts and wildfires were also prevalent, with approximately $1 billion being lost as a result of wildfires alone.

We can expect more expensive and deadly disasters in the future as climate change continues to accelerate. The effects of climate change have a real monetary value when you evaluate the damage of these extreme weather events. Imagine if that $65 billion was spent on green technology instead of cleaning up the rubble after the fact? We need real investments in sustainable solutions to our consumption problems, or else we need to get used to paying out large sums of money picking up the pieces.

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Self-Sustained Environments

How would humans fare in a self-sustained environment? In 1991, eight men and women sought to answer this question. The results, however, were less than encouraging. Without intervention, they would likely have not survived. This speaks volumes about ideas such as starting a colony on the moon, or even, one day, Mars. The planet sustains life in ways that we do not even realize, and we have yet to find a way to survive on our own for an extended period of time.

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