A Geoengineering Series

BEYOND
QUICK FIXES.

As we grapple with the urgent challenge of climate change, technology stands as both our ally and, at times, our most misleading mirage – akin to attempting to shield the planet from warming with an umbrella in the face of the sun, or a corset to hold glaciers in place as the ice sheets melt.

BEYOND QUICK FIXES: A Geoengineering Series

Introduction 

Global temperatures over the last year reached a new high of 1.45 +/- 0.12 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, capping off the warmest ten-year period on record (WMO, 2024). This report only adds more urgency for drastic action to limit global warming to +1.5°C before that door slams shut, presenting an existential challenge for humanity and beyond (Copernicus, 2024). In response to this urgent need, a new narrative is emerging, one seeking to alter the environment at an unprecedented scale to tackle climate breakdown through external means, often technological. This is what is known as geoengineering, described by the University of Oxford’s Geoengineering Programme as a “deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change.” 

Geoengineering can take the form of, among others, cloud seeding, solar radiation management, carbon dioxide removal, weather modification, and seabed curtains (van Wijngaarden et al, 2023). In addition, many emerging projects focus on the polar regions, as the polar regions have an outsized impact on the global climate (UArctic, 2023). Five out of six of the world’s climate tipping points that are likely to be triggered below a +2°C warmer world are in the polar regions (Armstrong Mackay et al, 2022). Aims of polar projects range from regrowing of Arctic sea ice to holding back glacier melt in Greenland or Western Antarctica. 

Geoengineering is still novel, and worldwide cost-benefit mechanisms to assess potential successes are limited. In establishing its criteria for assessing geoengineering in 2012, the IPCC looked at the ability of projects to be effective, scalable and feasible, whilst also considering the financial and some of the environmental costs (Boucher et al, 2011, p. 4).  

However, while these criteria continue to be used in institutional analyses, the cost-benefit mechanism established by the IPCC in 2012 for geoengineering specifically leaves out ethical, legal, social, geopolitical, and broader ecological questions.  

Geoengineering projects grab headlines and many leading institutions, from the US government (Congressional Record 2022, p. 71) to the University of Cambridge, have been developing programmes to look specifically at their role in moderating the climate crisis. However, from a scientific perspective, it is imperative that we take a holistic approach that frames geoengineering within ethical, social and legal parameters as well as more extensive ecological studies on potential risks and unintended consequences. 

In this series, we asked eminent scholars in polar science to provide their expert opinions. What we find are concerns that are beyond the remit of geoengineering models. There are serious anxieties over uncertainties that could threaten ecosystems, and that societies (or governments and companies) are projecting geoengineering projects as “quick fixes” to avoid the necessary emissions cuts. We also hear about the downplaying of environmental justice, and of ignoring both time scales and the necessity of globally accepted policies without which we could ignite geopolitical conflicts over resources and practices. Critically, these researchers share an underlying fear over the lack of scientists at the decision table.  

One can already say that our current emissions level is a giant geoengineering experiment—but it is also one we know how to fix through drastic reductions that halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Before geoengineering projects can be taken seriously, it is imperative that their proponents fundamentally integrate multidisciplinary scientists into all assessment and decision-making processes, and to ensure full transparency of scientific concerns about potential downsides. The risks are too high to keep us on the sidelines.  

Dr. Susana Hancock, Scientist, Arctic Basecamp  

Professor Gail Whiteman, Founder/Executive Director, Arctic Basecamp; Professor of Sustainability, University of Exeter Business School 

Read the series: 

Roll the Dice to Save the Arctic? 

By Dr. Robbie Mallett (Research Scientist at UiT The Arctic University of Norway) and Prof. Dr. Julienne Stroeve (Professor at the University College London; Chief Science Officer at Arctic Basecamp) 

Don’t Look Up (North) 

By Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette (Professor at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst; and former Chair of the Polar Research Board of the US National Academy of Sciences) and Pam Pearson (Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative and a former U.S. climate negotiator) 

Risk and Rewards: Setting Ethical Standards for Climate Intervention  

By Dr. Lisa Graumlich (Palaeoclimatologist and President of the American Geophysical Union)