Hacking the Planet—Part 1

Hacking the Planet—Part 1

By Srivathsan Karanai Margan

Climate Engineering: Born Out of Desperation

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”—Carl Sagan


Climate change is no longer a subject of political or scientific discourse; it is now a hard-hitting reality. The global mean surface temperature is increasing, and a spate of extreme weather events is striking all parts of the world.

While climate has changed throughout the history of Earth due to natural factors, the current change is attributed to anthropogenic or human-induced causes. The massive emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), especially carbon dioxide (CO2), from the burning of fossil fuels is said to catalyze global warming and the ensuing climate change. Knowing the gravity of the situation, scientists, policymakers, and the international community have been working on mitigation plans to drastically cut the production of CO2 and other GHGs. However, the initiatives have not translated into appropriate, credible actions. By tracking the progress, it is becoming glaringly evident that the emission targets for GHGs and the drive to limit the increasing global mean surface temperature are unlikely to be met.

The fear of failing to avert a climate crisis is driving the international community to consider the topic of climate intervention, also known as climate engineering, which has been forbidden all through the earlier climate change and climate response discussions. Climate engineering is being regarded as a fallback to reduce both the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere and the global surface temperature.

This article is the first in a series on climate engineering. The intention of this series is to provide a simplified primer on an extremely complex topic. This article discusses why climate engineering graduated from being taboo to an important piece of the climate response puzzle. This will be followed by articles on the different types of climate engineering, the risks, and challenges it poses, and how it will impact the insurance industry.

Anthropogenic climate change

Over the last few decades, the intensity of the weather events faced by our planet has increased significantly. Powerful and destructive storms, heavy precipitation, prolonged droughts, extreme heat, and cold waves are becoming the norm rather than the exception. The outlier record for the most severe weather event experienced in recorded human history for every type of catastrophe is being regularly broken and upwardly revised. These telltale symptoms indicate that the current health of our planet is not good. While these acutely destructive events are causing huge losses, slow-moving deterioration is occurring in the form of an increase in the global mean surface temperature, melting polar and glacial ice, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification—all of which portend a grim future.

The global mean surface temperature is currently about 1.1oC higher than what was experienced during the pre-industrial era of 1850–1900. The primary causes attributed to this increase are the anthropogenic activities that were carried out from the beginning of the industrial era. The Great Acceleration and the progressive economic developments that industrialization ushered the world into could be achieved only by consuming fossil fuels—coal, then oil and gas—as a source of energy. To draw a comparison, humans are said to have consumed more energy since the 1950s than in the past 12,000 years. This has in turn led to the massive emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) into the atmosphere.

It is the nature of GHGs to trap heat in the atmosphere—a property called the greenhouse effect. Up to an accepted level, the greenhouse effect nourishes life on the planet by keeping it warm. While gases like CH4 trap more heat than CO2, they have a shorter lifetime. Thus, if CO2 is not adequate in the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect may become too weak to prevent the global surface average temperature from reaching freezing levels. The problem with anthropogenic emissions of GHGs is that they are massive and are making the Earth warmer than the threshold. It is even crossing the threshold for changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an institution created to assess available scientific knowledge in a transparent manner to inform policymakers, has warned that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

Climate scientists fear that we have already overshot the climate tipping points and predict that, considering the rate of anthropogenic emissions and the rate of growth, by the year 2100, the increase in temperature could reach 4-5oC. Given the complexity of the Earth’s multiple systems, even a marginal increase in temperature is likely to result in non-linear, unpredictable, and disastrous eventualities. To avert a climate crisis, the international community, comprising 196 parties, adopted the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty to limit the increase in the global average below 2oC above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. To this effect, it was agreed to reduce GHG emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. As CO2 contributes to over two-thirds of all the anthropogenic GHGs emitted, it eventually becomes the primary target.

The response conundrum

For policymakers and scientists, responding to climate change and the impending crisis while still keeping the focus on economic development and progress has been an important challenge. Over the years, the response to climate change has become more inclusive and expansive. The primary strategy of response evolved from focusing on mitigation to adaptation and resilience. Mitigation involves all the activities related to drastically cutting down on the production of CO2 and other GHGs. It delves into approaches such as shifting from fossil fuels to green and renewable energy sources and reaching net-zero emissions, also known as carbon neutrality. Policymakers and the international community are diligently working toward finding green and renewable energy alternatives for fossil fuels.

Adaptation, on the other hand, anticipates the adverse effects of climate change and focuses on creating plans in response to the impacts of actual and expected climate change. It relates to making appropriate adjustments in natural and human systems, such as disaster-resistant infrastructure, a responsive lifestyle, and accommodative consumption patterns. The objective of adaptation is to moderate or prevent harm, or even to contextually exploit situations if they are beneficial. The design of the adaptation measures varies based on the area they are meant for (local, regional, or country), period (short or long term), scope (incremental or transformative), and frequency (one-time or ongoing). Resilience is another term that is often used interchangeably with adaptation. However, resilience is different and complementary to adaptation. Resilience focuses on building the capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the impacts of climate events.

Of the two climate responses, mitigation directly attacks the anthropogenic causes of climate change to minimize the intensity, and adaptation and resilience try to reduce the impacts of climate change and bounce back faster. Though mitigation is a global public good with far-reaching benefits, it may take several decades or centuries for the benefits to be realized. The myopic compulsions for economic growth and the tragedy of the horizon become barriers to continuous actions that will ensure compliance with the commitments. The biggest challenge for mitigation is that its success hinges only on long-term collective action by many stakeholders, especially the biggest CO2 emitters. However, it is widely accepted that moving away from fossil fuels may not be realistically possible anytime in the near future. So it is not realistic to achieve net-zero just by reducing what we emit; we need ways to remove the remaining emissions. Even in a hypothetical scenario in which the GHG emissions are brought to zero, the Earth will remain warmer for centuries because of the long lifetime of CO2 emitted earlier.

Climate models, which are approximations of the real world, also indicate that by depending only on the mitigation plans, it may not be feasible to either bring down atmospheric CO2 accumulation or the global surface temperature. There are signs of collective failure that indicate the eventuality of a climate breakdown will be unpreventable unless some other alternative techniques are pursued. It is out of this desperation that climate intervention, also called climate engineering or geoengineering, which was all along treated as a forbidden and controversial topic, is steadily gathering interest and respect as a subject of intense research. The desperation is so intense that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the IPCC—the two important bodies that monitor climate change, provide guidance, and produce frameworks for global cooperation—are acknowledging the potential of climate engineering. However, being wary of the risks associated, the bodies have stressed the need for caution in development and deployment.

Counting on manipulation

Climate engineering is defined as the intentional large-scale manipulation of Earth’s environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change and promote habitability. It refers to a heterogeneous collection of activities that are directed at land, oceans, the atmosphere, and/or their physical, chemical, or biological processes. Climate engineering is not a new idea; it has been recognized as a potential option ever since the study of climate change began. There are even historical experiments with deploying it as a war strategy to destabilize opponents by manipulating the weather. Climate engineering is a complex topic that includes a variety of proposals. The techniques are divided into two broader types: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM)—see Figure 1. While CDR deals with managing air, water, and land, SRM is focused on managing the sun.

Reality check

CDR solutions are relatively benign and complement ongoing mitigation efforts. CDR will be critical to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. In contrast to CDR, SRM methods are expected to rapidly cool the Earth’s temperature at a much cheaper cost. However, it is feared that SRM methods could be much riskier than CDR, as they could cause unintended adverse ecological, biophysical, and biogeochemical impacts or exacerbate global power balance and inequality.

The climate models that vouch for the benefits of large-scale deployment of climate engineering techniques consider the Earth to be a deterministic system that follows a set of fixed rules. They presume that the behavior of Earth’s systems could be controlled with climate engineering. However, the climate engineering solutions are currently slow-paced, hypothetical, in early research stages, or undergoing small-scale experiments. None of them have seen large-scale deployment showing even a marginal positive impact at the planetary level. Building hopes for the survival of life on the planet on technologies that are still unproven could be a classical example of extreme technology optimism—trusting technology to be the solution to everything.

There are several unknowns with respect to large-scale implementations of climate engineering: the extent of the actual benefits varies, and/or they could turn out to be counterproductive, inflicting severe cascading damages. Calculating the cost-benefit analysis is quite challenging as the benefits versus risks trade-off is unclear and the consequences could span over very long periods of time.

Humanity faces a dilemma: whether to be passive and witness the eventual manifestation of the climate crisis, or actively pursue climate engineering with the hope that it averts the crisis, in spite of its possible shortcomings. The payoff from climate engineering is uncertain, and hence any decision should be made based on the collective risk appetite and preferences and only after considering the potential benefits of each technique and weighing it against costs such as ecological disruptions or unforeseen consequences.

Why now?

In a multi-polar world, collective will of the international community is in short supply. There is a lacuna in the seriousness and urgency accorded to climate change mitigation, and enforcing the reduction commitments is also becoming a concern. The world appears quite unlikely to meet the climate goals and hence in due course the decision to develop and deploy climate engineering will become a global imperative.

Positive anthropogenic interference will be accepted as a less risky choice than doing nothing. If deployed successfully, climate engineering could be classified as a critical infrastructure that is crucial for the environment, security, economy, public health, and safety of the international community. Climate engineering will work alongside climate mitigation as a strategy for reaching the climate goals faster. In due course, even climate adaptation and resilience may accommodate responses to supposed risks caused by climate engineering or even entail counter-climate engineering to neutralize the adverse impacts.

Next up

The next article in this series will discuss carbon dioxide removal.

SRIVATHSAN KARANAI MARGAN works as an insurance domain consultant at Tata Consultancy Services Limited.


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