Can Mother Nature and investors benefit from geoengineering?

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Whether you support or oppose the use of stem cells to be used in medical therapy, there has certainly been a loud divide on the subject in recent years. The ongoing debate surrounding stem cell research is eerily similar to another new controversial subject gaining increased public attention, geoengineering.

Geoengineering, the intentional large-scale tinkering of weather to combat global warming, has great possibilities. Notice I used the word “possibilities”. However, it also can bring huge potential consequences, deep ethical considerations and questions like what are the real critical necessities for radical technological implementations, how will a coordinated international approach work or is this really our generation’s problem to deal with in the first place?

One thing is for sure if we can’t agree on a clean energy policy and there are still very recent calls for moratoriums on fracking, do we really think geoengineering will seriously move forward in large-scale any time soon? With that said, I think many of us would agree global climate patterns are in fact changing, even Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson agrees, so we should at least transparently study how to cool the planet effectively before there is a worldwide emergency of epic proportion and it’s too late. However, our efforts should not be focused on simply putting a band-aid on climate change. We have to do better. Therefore as we look to reduce our CO2 emissions and fight off the sun, investors may want to also consider allocating capital toward responsible geoengineering.

Pros

Geoengineering has become more of a mainstream topic. This is good since it is shedding even more light on science and global warming at a time when climate change is causing severe droughts, floods, tornados, earthquakes and hurricanes in various parts of the globe. Ultimately, increased concerns over weather patterns should cause wider acceptance for new technologies which can improve energy efficiency through software, effectively lower our dependence on fossil fuels and allow us to creatively and economically remove CO2 from the air. That’s where the money is.

Advanced research into geoengineering must be started by our generation. There is no reason that our children’s children need to pay for our abuse of fossil fuels. To that end, any large geoengineering project would likely help lower the host country’s unemployment rate and give that economy a positive charge since new industries, opportunities and technologies may result.

Considering we are more at risk from hurricanes due to climate change, I am cautiously optimistic on cloud seeding because of ease of deployment and ease to cease operations if it appears there is unintended consequences. Cloud seeding is the spraying of droplets of seawater from drones to make clouds thicker and better able to block sun from hitting ocean water (just think how the city of San Francisco is cooler than many areas of California because of increased clouds in the area which acts like natural air conditioner). Cloud seeding research is led by the University of Manchester, the University of Edinburgh and a company called Silver Lining but truth be told, I was hard-pressed to find much information on them. Conceptually cloud seeding could be used to lower hurricane strength a full category which could be great news and perhaps the priority for its implementation. Obviously this is really clever idea considering storm threats are a growing issue for coastal residents and even national security.

Another water-based concept that I believe has merit comes from Atmocean. This New Mexico based company created a wave-driven deep-ocean pump that can also lower a hurricane’s intensity by pumping warm surface waters down and draws cold nutrient-rich water up from the depths of the ocean.

Cons

Keep in mind we still have a carbon problem even if we incorporated ideas such as painting roofs white (PPG Industries is a leader here), spraying cooling aerosols and using giant mirrors all to reflect the sun’s light. We also still have a carbon problem if we fast-tracked other concepts such as growing artificial trees, ocean fertilization (Climos and Planktos), seeding clouds out at sea to lower hurricane strength or even putting blankets over arctic areas all to help lower the earth’s temperature.

We largely don’t even know yet how long geoengineering projects would last so cost estimates may be premature. So geoengineering may be an expensive yet “temporary” fix since we still must focus on ways to cut CO2 emissions. Additionally, global leaders may remain idle on climate change and lowering greenhouse gas emissions if geonegineering is considered a magic bullet that in the end may be more like taking a weight-loss supplement but still eating an unhealthy diet—in this case that diet is producing carbon gas.

Seeding clouds is not a foolproof concept and could produce more rain (if that rain contains more salt from the ocean it could damage crops). The exact number of strategically placed ships throughout the world is hard to quantify considering this has never been done before. Then there is the whole conversation of how will the drones or ships that are spitting out seawater into the sky be fueled? Wind powered vessels and solar powered vessel would make me more interested in seeding clouds but we must research how this idea can actually disrupt the atmosphere’s natural cycle, including siphoning off moisture needed in many areas. Separately, there are concerns that sulfate injection could cause droughts and we don’t need any more of those. Plus there are questions whether or not ocean fertilization with iron may actually reduce the amount of vital CO2 eating algae. Clearly, even the magic bullet ideas have their flaws.

We also must take extra precautions to ensure that geoengineering (in any form) is truly used to combat climate change and not to advance new forms of military weaponry. Therefore, some forms of geoengineering implementation may be better considered as a last resort effort to save our planet. That means geoengineering may become Mother Nature’s own stem cell research fight or even her own genetically modified food battle which will stir up plenty of heated public and private debate in coming years. Therefore, we must likely proceed with caution.

Verdict

While there is much talk about natural gas being a “bridge” fuel, if geoengineering such as cloud whitening or cooling aerosols can prove not to hurt our environment, they could actually help us buy some time (a few years maybe) while next generation low-carbon energy technologies on the other side of the energy bridge argument are actually ready to be deployed (i.e. biofuels, lighter modes of transports, carbon storage, sea water air conditioning, etc.). When I think of geoengineering I’m reminded of the Under Armour sports commercial “Protect this house!” – We can’t be complacent when it comes to protecting our environment, but we must be smart.

Geoengineering doesn’t have to be pure science fiction or fantasy. Rather, finding smarter solutions for climate temperature stability through innovations in cleanweb technology, energy storage, advanced batteries, nuclear reactors and fuel that run on waste, carbon sequestration and more efficient energy approaches which influence demand side behavior as well as fine-tune supply of electric power.

Anyone remember the Brady Bunch episode when Greg, Peter and Bobby break their mom’s vase and try to glue it back together only to see the vase leak water from many directions just a little while after? The same episode brought the famous line, “Mom always says don’t play ball in the house” which has me thinking of something else – We must ensure we don’t do further damage to our planet by implementing untested geoengineering technologies which are meant to help cool Earth. If we do move forward with poorly researched and extreme methods to reduce climate temperature, we may risk repeating another famous line from the 1970’s, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”.

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