Geoengineering Won’t Save Our Oceans

Photo by flickr user nashworld under a Creative Commons license

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


Last month I wrote about geoengineering, controversial schemes to deliberately manipulate the Earth’s climate to slow the planet’s warming. I focused mostly on a proposal often called “solar radiation management” (PDF), in which sunlight is blocked in the upper atmosphere in order to reduce warming at the planet’s surface. A new study, cowritten by one of the main sources in my piece, Stanford’s Ken Caldeira, makes a major conclusion about this type of geoengineering: It may cool the planet, but it won’t prevent dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide from wreaking havoc on our oceans.

As MoJo’s environmental correspondent Julia Whitty has written, our oceans are already at their breaking point: Man-made emissions have negatively impacted the ocean’s chemistry, and toxic waste is being dumped into our oceans without regard for its harmful impact on fragile marine ecosystems. To make matters worse, scientists fear that large-scale geoengineering proposals could cause further acidification of our oceans (for instance, the sulfur injected into the atmosphere in a solar radiation management scheme would fall back to the Earth’s surface through precipitation), damaging the lifeforms that live there. More recent geoengineering studies (PDF), however, allayed those fears, finding that solar radiation management wouldn’t acidify the oceans as much as first anticipated.

Nonetheless, the Caldeira report finds that our oceans and coral life are in grave danger—and even the best-case-scenario geoengineering scheme to block out the sun’s rays won’t help the oceans much. Paired with a report from earlier this year stating that global warming is essentially irreversible, that CO2 will hang around in the atmosphere for around a thousand years or so, the Caldeira paper suggests that solar radiation-related geoengineering efforts aren’t worth pursuing.

Perhaps geoengineering researchers would be better off focusing on ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, like synthetic trees that “scrub” the CO2 out of the air. After all, why waste time, money, and manpower on a geoengineering scheme like solar radiation management if, as this latest research suggests, it won’t do much to save our planet?

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.