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Geoengineering: Quick Fix, or a Way to Go from Bad to Worse?

Ocean wavesTechnology can undoubtedly make the world a better place. Where, after all, would we be without the wheel, agriculture or email?

Still, there’s almost always a flipside to technological advances. The wheel improved not only travel, but warfare. Agriculture made food more reliable for humans … but also, eventually, helped give rise to confined animal feeding operations, the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone and, for better or worse, the Hardee’s Thickburger. As for email? I have one word for you: Spam.

So when it comes to the fixes being offered for climate change, it’s wise to approach technology warily. Yes, in theory, we could erase our ever-growing greenhouse gas problem if we perfect carbon capture and storage … but that won’t eliminate the environmental degradation wrought by coal mining or the threat of peak oil. And, yes, more nuclear power might reduce our dependence on foreign oil … but it could only increase threats of sabotage or terrorism.

Even more troubling are the global warming “solutions” being offered by fans of geoengineering. This is the idea of seeding the oceans with iron to encourage plankton growth that absorbs carbon dioxide. Of course, too many nutrients in the ocean also cause algal blooms that suck up oxygen, making vast areas unlivable for marine species — again, think the Dead Zone. That’s why it was encouraging this week to hear one international organization come out against geoengineering experiments in the world’s oceans.

The International Maritime Convention (IMO), a United Nations agency with 167 member-states (including the U.S.) makes its primary focus maritime safety. This week, though, members of the IMO’s London Convention, a 1972 treaty on marine pollution, said they also have authority over geoengineering experiments at sea. Their “statement of concern” warned that, given our current knowledge of how ocean fertilization works, large-scale experiments of that nature “are currently not justified.”

Now the convention is not being outright obstructionist when it comes to seeking ways to manage climate change. Earlier this year, for instance, it amended the 1972 treaty to allow geological sequestration of carbon dioxide under the seabed. But its note of caution regarding geoengineering at this point in time makes sense.

Oceans make up nearly three-quarters of our planet’s surface. More than half the world’s people live within 200 kilometers of an ocean coastline, and millions depend daily on the seas for food or livelihood. The oceans hold more than half of all species of life on Earth. And oceans already act naturally as the planet’s largest carbon sink. Before we start messing with another thing nearly as big as our atmosphere — the reason for all these experiments in the first place — let’s put a little more effort into solutions we know to be Earth and life-friendly … like conservation, reduced consumption and less pollution, not more.




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