Why Geoengineering is our only real hope in the battle against climate change

The idea of geoengineering, essentially using technology to artificially cool the planet is not popular among environmentalists. Former US President Al Gore recently said that the entire idea is insane. Although most people don't know what it is, it is already the stuff of internet conspiracy theories.

However, given our failure to make any real progress on climate change over the last few decades and with the arctic rapidly melting, it may be our only hope of staving off catastrophic global warming.

Several times in the last few months, I have heard the proposed Keystone XL pipeline referred to as 'the climate bomb', but it is not. Keystone XL is a terrible idea, but the real climate bomb is resting quietly in the arctic permafrost.

According to NASA, "over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon - an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 billion metric tons of it. That's about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth's soils. In comparison, about 350 billion metric tons of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850."

That means that roughly 4-5 times the greenhouse gasses emitted by humans since the start of the industrial revolution are waiting to become airborne as soon as the arctic warms enough. Currently, the arctic is melting faster than climate models predicted.

Governments are preparing for this, to an extent, but all of their preparation seems to be focused on the economic opportunities that will open up in shipping, drilling and mining once the Arctic ice is gone.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are focused where they have been for many years. They are pushing alternative energy sources and "reduce, reuse, recycle". All of that is great, but so far it has resulted in no real impact on climate change. To date we have managed to slightly slow the rate at which our greenhouse gas outputs are increasing.

So, since An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, there has been an overall increase in carbon emissions. What we have achieved is a slow down in the rate at which emissions are increasing.

At this point, using the "reduce, reuse, recycle" and alternative energy approach the only guaranteed way to prevent an arctic melt and the explosion of a "nuclear" carbon bomb would be for everyone to turn almost everything off immediately - meaning we would only allow carbon neutral fuels (nuclear, solar, wind etc). All non electric cars, trucks, planes, and trains would be banned and any coal, oil or natural gas burning plants and equipment would have to be turned off.

Politically, that simply isn't going to happen. Most of the world hasn't even agreed to carbon taxes yet, parts of it don't recycle and increasing fuel efficiency for automobiles is still controversial. That leaves geoengineering.

Geoengineering isn't ready yet. There are several possible methods being studied but there is no technology that we know, for sure, would have the desired effect. Doing geoengineering wrong, could be disastrous and irreversible. If the arctic permafrost is allowed to melt though, the impact of that will also be disastrous and irreversible.

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