Geoengineering (GE) involves the attempt to solve the problems of climate change by altering the Earth’s ecology.
It largely comes in two forms:
Solar Radiation Management (SRM) in which we try and lower the amount of the Sun’s energy/heat reaching the earth’s surface. This can involve: mirrors in space, reflective gasses in the upper atmosphere, or painting mountains white.
Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) in which you try and suck CO2 from power stations or from the atmosphere. One recognized problem with this technique is the question of what we do with the CO2 once it is extracted.
The idea of GE is that we can continue on with polluting, and try and lower the effects of that pollution.
A common argument from pro-GE people, is that there is no evidence that the world can halt CO2 production and the resultant climate change, through political or economic processes at this moment, so GE may give us a longer period in which we can change, or transition to a new set of energy generators.
Both the IPCC and IEA seem to expect that we can establish CDR and gain negative emissions, but at the moment the technology is largely a fantasy technology which largely exists as a rhetorical way of saying new coal energy should be acceptable. CDR does not exist at anything like the scale we need, and there is no really useful, safe and permanent way of disposing of the collected CO2.
The primary question for both SRM and CDR is a simple one. GE, like everything else that depends on humans, is unlikely to be immune to its social bases. If the dynamics of contemporary societies are inherently destructive of ecologies, then GE is unlikely to prevent that destruction, nor to give a breathing space for new developments. It is likely to help make things worse, or continue the destructive dynamics of that system.
Clearly if we use SRM, the system has to be continually maintained, and that will cost billions. There will be ongoing arguments over who should pay, and how much they should pay. If there is a financial collapse or large scale war, then that maintenance is unlikely to be without problems. In which case climate change would have the brakes taken off, and would accelerate rapidly, causing even worse climate turmoil.
The governing idea of SRM seems that it is easier to change the whole ecological system than to change a political arrangement of economic power and profit. This I’m not sure about. The risk of unintended consequences when fiddling with a system as complex as that of climate is very high. We may already be living in a complex maladaptive system, which is bent on its own destruction and SRM simply magnifies this.
GE could be the equivalent of encouraging smoking to preserve corporate profits, while trying to do research in the hope of some day being able to postpone the inevitable and increasing cancer toll. It might be simpler to discourage people from smoking and to make cigarettes less profitable.
Basically, it can be suggested that if GE becomes the main way of dealing with problems of Climate change, then we live in a society in which ‘instrumental reason’ does not function very well as there are cheaper and possibly better options available, but those options require us to challenge established corporate power, and we are unlikely to do that successfully. I think the last 20 to 30 years of politics in the English Speaking world demonstrates that this failure is very likely to be the case.
Amazingly it is true that among people who both support corporate dominance and deny climate change, GE is quite popular. At the moment I can hypothesise this is precisely because GE does not challenge corporate power, and provides an opportunity for leeching money away from the taxpayers, but I don’t know. It certainly strikes me that if you really wanted less State intervention in life, then you would not want geoengineering.
I have not seen any viable self-supporting GE proposals. Nearly all of them require massive tax-payer subsidies, and some require appear to need massive cross-national governance and regulation. Of course we could give the massive subsidies to private enterprise and hope they do they job without any oversight, but I doubt that will appeal even to the pro-corporate power lobby. With CDR when that involves storage of CO2 underground, we know that ultimate and infinite responsibility of checking for leaks and collapse of storage, will reside with governments and taxpayers, as corporations do not last that long and will not take on those responsibilities. At the least, it seems probable that people will be concerned about other countries freeloading on their efforts, and there will be massive governmental jaunts to try and sort this out. The likelihood of small government and GE seems miniscule.