Our Last Option?

I consider myself dedicated to the environment. I recycle everything I can, often tearing the plastic film in front of envelopes off and putting the rest of it in the paper-recycling bin. I turn the light switch off as soon as I leave a room. I unplug and shut down my electronics when they’re not in use. And the list goes on. The point is that I do these things because they are small steps toward a sustainable lifestyle. But sometimes, I wonder if these efforts are enough. That is where geoengineering comes in. Geoengineering is defined by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as the intentional modification of the Earth’s climate. In the case of global warming, this modification can be used to reflect the sun’s rays, thereby cooling the planet. Several possibilities have been raised in the past: spraying seawater into the atmosphere to make clouds more reflective, fertilizing the oceans with iron to increase the growth of algae (which would sequester the carbon dioxide) and placing reflective mirrors in space. One of these plans proposes the idea of spraying sulfur into the stratosphere. Sulfur dioxide has reflecting and absorbing agents that could combat carbon dioxide emissions and relieve the symptoms of greenhouse gases. And the exceptional part of this proposal? According to The New York Times, the estimated cost of such an undertaking is $50 billion, roughly five percent of the world’s annual military expenditures. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, “Injecting sunlight-scattering particles into the stratosphere appears to be a promising approach.” Simply stated, proposals like this one could alleviate global warming, and we should consider them seriously. However, if it were really so easy, geoengineering would have been more than just a possibility by now. Much controversy and stigma surrounds the issue of geoengineering for a few reasons. For one, some argue that if it were really put to the task, people might see it as a substitute for sustainable living, since we can manipulate technology to compensate for our increasingly wasteful needs. But although there are now worldwide efforts to improve sustainability and combat carbon dioxide emissions, including the earnest undertakings by our own campus sustainability projects, will these initiatives be enough? The road to carbon neutrality is long and difficult, and the effects of global warming have already shown themselves in changing weather patterns and rising sea levels. In short, being sustainable might not be enough. The only way to combat global warming is to combine geoengineering with sustainability efforts. But many critics also emphasize the risks involved with geoengineering. If were implemented, geoengineering would have to stay to produce long-term results, and worsening pollution is a possibility. By exploiting the planet in this way, we could also produce unwanted consequences. But think about this: according to a July 25, 1997 article in Science magazine, even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases at this very moment, the residual effects would still be enough to increase the already grave climate problem. And in a way, geoengineering has already been put into action. Planting trees to offset carbon emissions is a form of geoengineering, and is widely viewed as a good way to offset the environmental effects of greenhouse gases. The reality of global warming has been accepted by almost all of the scientific and worldwide community and is beginning to be addressed by people from all walks of life and political parties. Here at PA, our sustainability efforts are commendable. With our plans for a green roof for the Addison Gallery, the recycling bins in every building and Uncommons’s locally grown food efforts, Andover has certainly strived to become an environmentally friendly community. But it is up to the world to take the next step, and to bring geoengineering from the fringes of the scientific community to the global stage. Michelle Ma is a Junior.