Three countries endanger world

NEWS ANALYSIS

People are getting good at manipulating the weather, especially when it comes to seeding clouds to force rainfall where there is none. This is just one kind of geoengineering and things can go badly wrong.

For the past few decades, warnings by scientists have stopped serious manipulation of the environment. But increasing temperatures and weird weather are making countries ever more desperate and more ambitious. From forcing clouds to drop their water to blocking the sun to reduce the temperature, everyone is trying something to control climate.

Concerned about this, 10 countries at the United Nations Environment Assembly, held in Nairobi last week, tried to create a body to regulating geoengineering. But, faced with opposition from the United States, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, they watered down their proposals and asked that the assembly draft a report into the state of all the research being done on geoengineering. The same three countries shot this down. The first two — under Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro — have taken a hardline, anti-science stance on major environment platforms.

This means the basic problem with geoengineering remains: everyone is doing their own thing and nobody knows the combined effect of this.

An attempt, in 2016, by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to get countries to volunteer information on their geoengineering work similarly failed. Faced with climate change, more countries are looking for ways to do something big.

Last year, the UN’s climate change body — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — said global carbon emissions need to drop by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050 to keep temperature increases to survivable levels.

The 2030 goal will not be met. South Africa’s national energy plan, for example, allows for huge carbon emissions, even in 2050.

In a 2016 report on climate change, the UN’s climate panel said that countries would need to start taking carbon out of the atmosphere to keep temperatures to safe levels. On the current trajectory, the average world temperature will have increased by more than 3°C this century. Countries on the African continent say that any increase over 1.5°C will result in people — and other life forms — dying and destroy their economies.

Geoengineering is increasingly seen as a quick-fix for this. Dropping carbon emissions — or doing something like blocking the sun — could lower temperatures, without countries needing to do much about their carbon emissions.

Earlier this month, scientists at Harvard published research looking at how global warming could be halved by geoengineering. The article, Halving Warming with Idealised Solar Geoengineering Moderates Key Climate Hazards, was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The research was inspired by the effect that volcanoes have on global temperatures. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted and dropped global temperatures by half a degree. In the 1600s, Huaynaputina in Peru erupted and created five years of cold summers across South America.

The temperature drops because volcanoes throw so much dust and tiny particles into the sky that they block heat.

According to the Harvard team’s computer models global warming could be halved by spraying aerosols into the atmosphere around the world.

The scientists said the benefits of this would be to all countries — not just the rich countries that can financially afford to manipulate the atmosphere.

But the research is under ideal circumstances, where nothing goes wrong.

With little being done to reduce carbon emissions, this is the kind of solution that countries will increasingly turn to. And the danger of geoengineering is likely to increase because states such as the US are blocking attempts to regulate this practice. As a result, nobody will have any idea of the cumulative effect of every country doing its own thing to limit the effects of climate change.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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