We’ve been doing geoengineering, transforming our environment, since the beginning of human civilization. In the past many effects appeared only local, or at most continental, while today they are global.
The flow of real time information enhances our ability to assess the impact of the changes in the environment. The responsibility is ours to take advantage of the technological tools we have available, and to develop new ones, to maintain Earth within the parameters that lead to human flourishing.
Geoengineering, for technophiles like me, is an exciting word. It inspires power, responsibility, and even exhilaration at what humanity can achieve. For others, though, it is a sign of hubris, of irresponsible action, that does not take into account the unforeseeable consequences of what we do.
Is geoengineering something that we should attempt to do? Is it something that we should refrain from, even though the consequences of inaction can also be dangerous? As it turns out, we are already doing geoengineering. We have been doing it for 10,000 years—maybe more.
The Anthropocene Era
We are living in a new geological era—the Anthropocene—which is characterized by the presence of humanity on the planet.
The International Geological Union has been debating whether or not to adopt this name and how to decide the year when the Anthropocene should have officially started. It is different from other geological eras like the Jurassic, Cretaceous, or others that span millions or tens of millions of years. The Anthropocene’s official start is 1963, the year when atmospheric nuclear explosions were banned. Due to the radioactive dust that these explosions created, deposited all over the planet’s surface, the start of the Anthropocene era will be identifiable even millions of years from now. It will enable any geologist, human, alien, robot, or AI to pinpoint this year and say that something was going on at that time.
Radioactive elements do not exist in concentrations at those specific isotopes other than as we create them; thus, making them a poignant identifier for this geological era. The things that people have been doing on the planet have left traces that will remain visible everywhere for millions of years.
Nature Is Not Pristine
If you think about forests, you think about pristine nature. You think about the beautiful balance of plants and animals and a rich ecosystem where each species is respectful of the other and is flourishing—untouched by human presence. You will probably not realize that wherever you are and wherever you go, you have likely never been in a primary forest.
This is the case if you have never left Europe or North America unless you’ve gone to the farthest reaches of Canada towards the Arctic, if you have never left Russia unless you’ve been to the farthest parts of Siberia, or if you have never left India or China. None of the forests in these places are primary forests. They are all regrowth that happened after civilizations—in centuries and millennia—changed the environment and the landscape due to agricultural and military activities.
This is what happened, for example, in Scotia where forests have been eliminated to build big ships to fight the Spaniards and to conduct geographical explorations.
Nowhere are primary forests the ones you can see and experience. There are some, though not a lot, in Africa. There are also some in the Amazon in South America, but even there, large parts are no longer primary. They are regrowth of the spots that we have changed. Thus, as we look at nature on this planet, people have already changed a lot of it over the course of millennia.
A New Approach To Geoengineering
What is different today, with respect to the past, is that we are now much more aware of what we are doing on a global scale. This global awareness brings with it a keener and more alert understanding of the consequences of our actions in terms of humanity flourishing or suffering. In the past, entire empires could collapse with millions of people dying and without anyone from the other parts of the world knowing. Today, we are aware of what’s happening anywhere in the world, and we cannot be blind to this knowledge. We cannot be blind to human suffering or the lack of opportunities for humanity to flourish.
Thus, if you think about geoengineering, you do not need to pretend that it is something new. You can realize that it is something we have already been doing. We just have to do it better. We must do it with our modern tools of data collection and data analysis, modeling extremely complex systems as well as we can and always seeking ways to improve them. We must make decisions based on those models and data. We must experiment, feed the results into our models, and improve our ability to forecast what will happen if we intervene in any way.
We need the types of organizations that can design, implement, understand, and finance these operations. If they conduct experiments that are local, by definition, but have global implications, then they must become global sooner than later. We need new organizations that are not born from our existing reference frameworks of nation states, groupings of nation states, or of centralized and hierarchical supranational organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, or others.
Climate change, as it is framed today, indicates that the climate is changing and that humanity is causing those changes. We have to do something about it.
This kind of framing creates this polarized situation where a lot of people are saying, “Yes, this is definitely the case. We have to act; we have to act decidedly; and we have to go back to how things were before.” There are also others who say that those hypotheses are not correct, that we are not changing the climate, and that we do not have to intervene–that the more we intervene, the worse the situation becomes.
As it is, however, we have been intervening and changing the climate. The climate has been changing by itself as well.
Thus, the question is not whether we should be doing something because we are already doing it. The question is whether we should be doing it better or worse. Should we be doing it with our eyes open, or should we be blind and deaf to what we are doing?
Should we use the best tools that we have available, or should we dumb down our information, ability to act, and our civilization’s level of knowledge and empowerment?
You can look at this in a very pragmatic manner. If, a thousand years ago, a coastal population of indigenous people was hit by a hurricane, they could do practically nothing about it. They could neither realize that the hurricane was coming nor could they build their shelters in preparation for it. They would have been completely exposed. They would either survive or perish, but they would be able to do nothing.
Today, if we learn about an incoming hurricane, we prepare. The question is, if we can do things that make hurricanes more dangerous, should we keep doing them? If we can do things that make hurricanes less dangerous, should we do them instead?
There are many ideas around how to manage the climate and how to keep the earth in a friendly system of parameters that make it neither a bowl of ice, which happened in the past millions of years, nor a scorching desert, both of which are conditions that humans would find difficult to adapt to.
Today, the planet is incredibly welcoming. It is appropriate to what we want our ideal planet to be. This is unsurprising because we have adapted to living on this planet. The air is breathable. The water, such as that from the rivers, lakes, and rain, is potable. The soil is fertile and does not contain toxic trace elements that would poison us. We are shielded in a way that the dangerous rays are kept away and the ones that reach us not only illuminate our cities but also keep us happy. Moreover, it helps our metabolism develop the kind of vitamins that we need to be healthy.
Two things that make the earth an ideal planet for us are that we have adapted to living in it and that we have been lucky. We have been lucky that the fluctuations of, at least, the climate; the stability of the sun; and the other components have not caused extreme variations that could wipe out not only humanity but also life on the planet.
Nevertheless, we know something like this will happen in a few billion years. The Sun will become a red giant, and the transformation will be such that the earth will completely lose its atmosphere. The oceans will boil, making earth uninhabitable. We know that there is a limit. Before that time limit expires, we must find completely novel solutions if we want to survive as a specie and as a civilization.
We will probably become interplanetary or maybe even interstellar. Billions of years is plenty of time, but we must deal with more urgent changes. The increasing concentrations of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere is a change that we must keep track of.
Addressing Climate Change
If we can slow it down or reverse climate change, we should. If we can’t, then we have to identify the other measures we can put in place to ensure that the seven, eight, or nine billion people on the planet, as well as the rich biosphere and ecosystems that contain plants and animals, can flourish. We have to ensure that we can plan for their future, and that humans can at least live a dignified life. We must start thinking about these possible interventions now.
Some of these are literally science-fiction because they inherit the daring inspiring images of classic space operas. One example is shielding the earth from solar radiation so that the warming is reversed due to the reduced amount of solar radiation that arrives on earth.
This shielding can be achieved either by spraying certain chemicals at the highest atmospheric levels, simulating the effects of eruptions of super volcanoes that in the past have achieved important and long-lasting cooling effects. They can also be space-based where solar cells would be shading the appropriate pods for appropriate times of the planet. However, we also have to make our cities and our civilization resilient.
We have to make sure that we can learn something from the parts of the world that are already experiencing increased levels of temperature and where you need to stay inside, with air conditioning.
We must make livable conditions available to everybody. Moreover, we have to realize that making modern tools of adaptation and adaptability available locally is the best way for the local populations and the local cities to find ways to improve their conditions and their resilience.
We must use vertical farming and the indoor production of plants and animal proteins. We must radically decrease the cost of digging, so that these three-dimensional structures, which produce a lot of our food, can be built without impacting the areas that can then be returned to the forests, even though they are not primary, but can become carbon sinks.
We must understand how to generate potable water in very large quantities for those areas of the world that will have increasing problems with drinking water.
These problems may be caused by the entire reverse systems changing course or drying up, the diminishing of the ice sheets and glaciers that are feeding them, and the lack or change in rain patterns and monsoons.
We have to do this for obvious reasons and because our empathy and understanding of what is going on require it.
However, these are also incredible business opportunities to build trillion-dollar companies that have the power to do geoengineering with open eyes and with the aim of changing the planet for the better, as well as keeping the trajectory of human civilization towards improving and creating great opportunities for everybody.
I am very curious about the reactions on this delicate and complex subject. I welcome your comments, feedback, and questions.