Geoengineers should, arguably, be considered modern-day superheroes. They are valiantly taking on some of the biggest challenges of our time, like climate change, and trying to solve them with scientific methods and the best that technology has to offer – how cool is that! Yet these days, rather than being admired or celebrated, geoengineers find themselves increasingly on the defence. Accused of playing gods and meddling with complex systems without being able to control the consequences, they rapidly lose popularity.
Take, for instance, the lively debate that a proposed scientific balloon flight in northern Sweden has spurred recently. In June this year, a team of Harvard scientists is planning to launch a high-altitude balloon from Kiruna in Lapland to test whether it can carry equipment for a future small-scale experiment on radiation-reflecting particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. A bold experiment, by any standard, that could lead to the use of solar geoengineering to cool the Earth and combat the climate crisis by mimicking the effect of a large volcanic eruption.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, prominent Swedish environmental groups formulated their shared concerns in a letter to the Swedish government. The short version: while this particular balloon flight does not involve the release of particles, it could be the first step towards the adoption of a potentially “dangerous, unpredictable, and unmanageable” technology.
I haven’t made up my mind on geoengineering yet, and the more I read and think about it, the less confident I feel. It is a conundrum, indeed. On the one hand, we have all learned by now how easily well-intentioned interventions can go wrong and run terribly out of control. Examples of this abound. Let’s face it; although we are getting better at playing God, we are still not very good at it.
On the other hand, I get seriously disturbed when I stumble upon the critics’ argument that this technology is not addressing the problem, just trying to fix the symptoms. Having suffered through enough bouts of debilitating migraine, I am convinced that there is nothing wrong with “just” fixing some symptoms. It could even be a prerequisite for solving the underlying problem. Of course, I can follow their logic: humanity will never learn to live truly sustainably as long as ingenious experts keep cleaning up the mess people create. Yet we are where we are, and we seem to be running out of perfect options.
Andy Parker, project director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, sums it up rather gloomily: “We live in a world where deliberately dimming the sun might be less risky than not doing it.”
 And if you need a few more, check out Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.”
Image: © NordSIP