Risks in climate change tech


Enviromental activists hold up banners as they protest against climate change. FILE PHOTO | AFP

Scientists are beginning to support using geoengineering or climate engineering to slow global warming. This large-scale intervention on the Earth's natural systems – oceans, soils and atmosphere - aims to combat climate change.

However, the intervention is causing concern that it might bring more significant risks.

Not all climate scientists are happy. The new technology has split the scientific community in the middle, arguing that the latest climate research direction could pose severe planetary risks.

As such, policymakers need to build consensus to comprehensively assess the technology.

Tinkering with the environment is not without risks.

This has made me reflect on the movie: The Gods Must Be Crazy where Xi, the hunter-gatherer discovers that the glass Coca-Cola bottle disposed of by a passing aircraft was no blessing from the gods.

He then embarks on a journey to take it to the end of the world, but he never finds it. Instead, he encounters many challenges in the process.

Similarly, scientists attempting to intentionally make a large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system to counter climate change problems may find themselves in a similar predicament to Xi.

It requires a proper governance structure. There are things scientists should refrain from doing.

For instance, scientists cannot just decide to develop a genetically modified human being simply because there are grave implications for humanity.

The thought of re-engineering climate runs the risk of having unanticipated adverse effects worse than the issues they intended to address.

For instance, methods for controlling solar radiation that bounce sunlight back into space could chill the Earth. Still, they could change how precipitation falls and increase droughts in some regions.

Although it is not yet known if climate engineering can be used to directly control where rain falls, it is only a matter of time before some rogue nations weaponize precipitation patterns to deny their neighbours or enemies the ability to enjoy what we assumed to be a natural occurrence.

Some proposed geoengineering techniques, like cloud seeding, which entail adding compounds to clouds to induce them to release rain, if successful, could invariably find their way into war strategies and be potentially harmful to humans.

The two techniques, Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM) are still experimental, while others are untested and have yet to be proven at scale.

CDR method aims to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by enhancing natural carbon sinks (such as forests and oceans).

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It can also be used for direct air capture, which involves removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it underground.

SRM is used to reduce the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Earth. The method includes the deployment of space-based mirrors, the injection of reflecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere, and the brightening of marine clouds.

It also lessens the warming impacts of greenhouse gases by reflecting some of the sun's radiation back into space.

Ethically, no one has a right to large-scale experimentation of aspects with global implications.

But it is common knowledge that many conflicts and wars result from greed by powerful nations seeking to control resources irrespective of who legitimately owns them.

The effect of tinkering with the climate will automatically affect vulnerable populations with subsequent unequal distribution of benefits and risks.

For example, the development of social media that were sold as instruments of connecting communities and communication are regrettably becoming channels for propagating misinformation, fomenting discord, and causing conflict and exploitation of vulnerable communities.

Platforms from powerful nations are gathering behavioural data which can further be used to create an unequal world.

And Geoengineering, through large-scale experimentation, can potentially create a range of adverse effects, some of which are still not fully understood.

Moreover, it raises ethical questions as to who has a right to tinker with the climate on a large scale without appropriate risk assessment.

Yet, we still need to fully exploit the existing opportunities to mitigate climate change.

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There are better ways to mitigate climate change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, than pursuing non-ethical methods that could have far-reaching implications.

And although there is no one magic response to the continued transition to green energy, some efforts like forest conservation and embracing regenerative agricultural methods are working.

Above all, improving energy efficiency plays a significant role in mitigating the effects of climate change.

The writer is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium, Mission to the European Union, Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States and World Customs Organization. The article is written at a personal level.