On June 24th Urgenda won a lawsuit against the Dutch government where they demanded that the government would keep its promise to reduce carbon emissions by a certain amount, or at the very least do everything in their might to reach this goal. And whether or not you agree with this verdict, it is an important event. It is an indication that governments, but also people and corporations for that matter, should take the issue of climate change more seriously.
Enter climate engineering, a branch of engineering aimed to tackle human-induced climate change. Current proposals include carbon-capture, artificial creation of clouds and giant sets of mirrors in space. Of course, these projects would cost billions of dollars and it remains to be seen if they are effective. However, a more urgent question would be whether we should pursue climate engineering in the first place. I think that we should not.
Let us assume we are 20 years in the future and one or multiple of these climate engineering projects have been constructed. Let us further assume that they indeed have a decent effect on global temperatures. Space-bound mirrors and artificial whitened clouds reflect enough sunlight while simultaneously carbon is being scrubbed from the atmosphere and stored underground or in the ocean. All of this has caused global warming to halt. Hurray for us!
In this hypothetical case, will all our problem be solved? Most likely not. There will still be problems like deforestation, poaching or overfishing. But the main problem here will be the continued use of fossil fuels. Why should we spend billions on shifting the economy and our way of living towards more sustainability, when we can just build some systems that seemingly solve all our issues.
To me, this feels like the way children clean their rooms. When your mom told you to go clean your room you would most likely just throw all your clothes in the closet and the toys under your bed. And afterwards your mom would come in and tell you that this was not cleaning and you had just moved the mess from the floor to under your bed. Or was it just me?
This is how society nowadays works and climate engineering is a great example of this. The linear, fossil economy with its greenhouse gasses, pollutants, overexploitation of the environment is all just a giant mess. Now is the time to act as adults and start cleaning, really cleaning, this mess. When the foundation of a building is cracked, you do not just paint over it, you really fix it. The same holds for climate engineering. It is a great promise and likely holds some potential for the near future, but there are significant chances it will eventually backfire and make us regret not having tackled the problem by its roots, namely our way of living.