Throughout history, humanity has created impressive new technologies to overcome obstacles and improve its quality of life. Unfortunately, these technologies have become so dominant that they now inflict tremendous harm on the natural world. This leaves humanity struggling to scale back harmful technologies, such as those run on fossil fuels, in order to prevent a collapse of the natural systems upon which the world still relies.
Some scientists advocate another solution: Apply new technologies to correct the harms of the old. Using technology to engineer the climate itself, these experts claim, could be the best way to ensure humanity continues to thrive and survive on this planet. The trouble is that large-scale engineering of this sort has never been attempted, and critics worry about the consequences of getting it wrong.
Want a little insight into this debate? Here are some of the interesting ethical questions surrounding climate engineering.
The Good: Climate Engineering Could Conceivably End Global Warming Right Now
With technology available to the planet today, and at a cost of only about $1 billion, it is conceivably possible to slow or halt the progression of global warming. The strategy would involve using specially modified jets to disperse special aerosols in the stratosphere, where the particles would then help to disperse sunlight – and the heat it carries – for a period of about two years. It could then be repeated again and again, with the potential effect of stalling the worst of climate change and preserving modern life.
The promise offered by this type of approach should not be ignored, and while the application of such a large-scale solution could be a ways off in the future, it’s a concept that does merit exploration today. Professionals with an M.S. in Sustainability, with their skills in data-driven systems thinking, could prove valuable assets to those organizations making an effort to determine how effective climate engineering projects could be. With time and effort, they could help us learn for certain how much good a climate engineering campaign could do.
The Bad: Climate Engineering Could Become an Imperfect Primary Strategy
Many climate engineering proposals seem relatively simple to implement. In addition to the aerosol concept, there has also been research into the viability of seeding large expanses of ocean with fine particles of iron. This would have the effect of stimulating populations of phytoplankton, which consume carbon over the course of their lifetimes and, when dead, could release it to the depths of the ocean, potentially locking it away for decades or centuries. Yet another involves seeding clouds with sea salt to make them more reflective, allowing them to bounce sunlight away from the planet.
Though these methods hold a degree of promise – particularly the aerosol and cloud brightening techniques – it is important to remember that they are not true solutions to the underlying causes of climate change. The greenhouse gases will still be there, exerting influence on global climate behind the scenes. Researchers worry that climate engineering could be used as an excuse or shortcut, with efforts to achieve true sustainability abandoned. Climate engineering might be able to save the earth for a time, but not everyone is convinced that it can save us from ourselves.
Students Pursuing an M.S. in Sustainability Need to Decide – Is Climate Engineering Worth the Risk?
Even supposing climate engineering was to be implemented as a measure to buy extra time to achieve sustainability, and not as a way to avoid doing so, it carries risks. The use of certain chemicals as aerosols could cause an increase in acid rain incidents, and seeding the oceans could, in some cases, lead to oxygen-free dead zones appearing. There are many other potential effects, too, hotly debated by experts in various climate-related fields.
For students pursuing a sustainability degree online, it may be a little disconcerting to realize that there are no clear answers, as of yet, about whether climate engineering is a concept worth pursuing aggressively. Do the benefits outweigh the risks, or is messing with the environment something that just isn’t worth it?
Studying sustainability at a reputable institution is the best way to get informed. Top schools like Unity College offer students access to instructors with many years of important industry and research experience, who can provide useful insight and guidance to those grappling with difficult environmental ethical questions. Studying in such a program can help you gain the knowledge necessary to formulate a strong and reasoned opinion on climate engineering, and perhaps help lead the way to an appropriate solution – whatever that happens to be.
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