Olson gives Spoerl Lecture on geoengineering, climate change solutions

Last week, the environmental science department held a lecture by guest speaker Robert L. Olson from the Alternative Futures Institute. The lecture was part of the Spoerl Lectureship in Science and Society and discussed the problems of climate change and the implications of the solutions presented. The lecture was held on Thursday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. in Steitz Hall.

The first half of the lecture discussed an emerging technology called climate geoengineering. Climate geoengineering is a category of technologies that could aggressively alter the course of global warming, technology that is both feasible and currently in development. These technologies serve as a ‘quick fix’ to climate change. Rather than try and take preventative measures, such as expanding green energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, climate geoengineering aims to directly reverse the effects of global warming.

The associated technologies fall under two categories: Those that aim to reduce sunlight to prevent warming and those that remove carbon from the atmosphere to mitigate greenhouse effects. The technologies that Olson presented varied in potential effectiveness. The weakest, but also least potentially harmful technology was aggressive reforestation. By planting trees in massive numbers, the aim is to increase the amount of plants that scrub carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen.

Another possible technology involves injecting iron into the oceans, which would cause large algae blooms which would absorb carbon. As the phytoplankton die, the carbon it absorbs would become part of the seafloor rather than reenter the atmosphere. However, this would come with the ramifications of algae blooms, which may cause harm to the atmosphere. Another strategy would be to plant lighter-colored crops and paint cities white to absorb less heat.

The most powerful geoengineering technology that was speculated, however, was the use of stratospheric sulphate aerosols. Stratospheric sulphate aerosols are chemicals that would be sprayed into the atmosphere by aircraft. The concept of this technology would be to create a global dimming effect. In the lecture, Olson cited a large volcanic eruption that released so many sulfates into the air that it created a cooling effect. Even a one percent reduction in sunlight, as Olson discussed, could potentially mitigate the effects of global warming. However, the ramifications of injecting sulfates are unknown and could potentially be extremely dangerous. Olson argued that the best and safest way to mitigate the effects of global warming would be to cut greenhouse gas emissions and simply prepare for what he strongly alluded to be the inevitable effects of global warming. Olson cited alarming studies which showed the environmental impacts of small raises in average global temperatures. One study he cited suggested that if global temperatures rise enough, the amount of land area affected by severe drought could increase from fifteen percent to forty-four percent by the year 2100.

Olson discussed issues with why preventative technologies have not been mobilized, despite the alarming evidence that was presented. Olson took a directly partisan stance and argued that the political right has catered to the interests of the energy industry and climate change deniers. As Olson argued, politics have been a major obstacle in enacting environmental policies. Part of what makes geoengineering so controversial is that the political right has recently shown support of geoengineering, even if the ramifications aren’t fully known yet, he said.

Junior Conor Sexton, an environmental studies major, discussed the political situation around geoengineering. “In the current political arena, it’s a very viable option that’s going to become lucrative as time goes on. There are lot of unknowns, but that’s the path we’re headed down if we’re unwilling to take long term steps to prevent climate change,” he said.

Though, politically, climate change has not gained much traction, Olson pointed out that even some conservative think-tanks are beginning to favor environmental policies that would not harm businesses. One such policy is carbon taxing, in which taxes from other areas in the economy are shifted onto a company’s carbon emissions to incentivize them to take environmentally friendly steps. Additionally, Olson said he was optimistic that something can be done about climate change. “It’s really important for us to have a dialogue between people who are concerned about climate change and people who are skeptical.”