Don’t look up (north)

Associated Press/John McConnico

As awareness grows of the catastrophic, and essentially permanent loss and damage facing us from rapid climate change at the Earth’s poles, an increasing number of policy and opinion leaders seem taken by the comforting lure of geoengineering.

The arguments from that community seem compelling: We need targeted techniques to “save the Arctic” from extreme warming there that is four times the global average. It is resulting irreversible impacts ranging from permafrost carbon emissions, to long-term sea-level rise from not just Greenland, but also Antarctica.

Yet, you will find few, if any polar and cryosphere scientists among the proponents of geoengineering. 

We certainly welcome the attention to these cryosphere (snow and ice-covered) regions, on which scientists have been sounding the alarm at least since the 1990s. However, the “tech and innovation” prescribed by those proposing geoengineering have us wondering if we’ve wandered onto the set of Netflix’s climate satire film “Don’t Look Up,” with solutions proposed by the tech billionaire character.

Just like in the movie, we understand the draw of technological fixes to avoid the inherently hard economic and societal transition that will be necessary to avoid the planetary disaster awaiting future generations should we fail to act in time.  But such so-called innovation aimed at polar regions ignores four key realities:

1) Most warming at the poles actually comes from the mid-latitudes. Just like New Year’s resolutions aimed at “spot reduction” of body fat, tech solutions targeting just the polar icecaps, or warming in polar regions alone will always be overwhelmed by heat coming in from other parts of the globe.

2) Blocking sunlight through injection of sulfates into the atmosphere or other means has devastating side effects. We know this already, and from the same data cited by geoengineers: records from major volcanic eruptions in Earth’s past.  While average global temperature did temporarily decrease after such events, the lack of sunlight for photosynthesis led to massive crop failures across the Northern Hemisphere from Ireland and France, to Scandinavia, Russia and northern China; as well in Southeast Asia, due to disturbance of monsoon rains.

3) Past volcanic eruptions demonstrate another problem with blocking sunlight: within a year or two, temperatures always bounce back. Once begun, tech fixes aimed at blocking the sun will need to continue, especially if used as an excuse to continue carbon emissions.  Far from “buying time,” they will place the planet on a knife’s edge of warming, committing future generations to continue the folly or else. If ceased for whatever reason, such as supply or conflict, temperatures would immediately spike. Potentially, temperature could increase by several degrees in a matter of months — commensurate with the level of CO2 then in the atmosphere.

4) These sunlight-reflecting methods do nothing to curb ongoing ocean acidification from CO2 emissions: a process that, like global warming is occurring far more quickly in the polar regions and takes tens of thousands of years to reverse. Scientists observed in 2008 that shell damage in newly corrosive polar waters was already present. 

All this, in addition to the inherent arrogance and offensiveness of treating the Arctic — home to approximately 4 million humans, many of them indigenous including Inuit, Saami, Gwich’in and Nenets peoples — as a geoengineering “test bed.”

It’s especially ironic that a 2018 study in the journal Nature was cited as a “potentially transformative” solution to the threat from West Antarctica, as the authors made clear that their examination was motivated in part by showing its enormous expense. The study also highlights the ultimate futility of this approach in the face of continuing emissions. The costs of rapid transition to a carbon-free global economy pale by comparison. 

The stark reality: There is no magic technological fix to the massive changes we see in the Arctic and Antarctic from carbon dioxide emissions and resulting global warming. The threats to, and from these polar regions primarily arise from human carbon emissions elsewhere — and so too must the solution. Like the cause, however, the deterioration at the poles will have its most devastating impacts elsewhere — becoming greater and more damaging the more we exceed the 1.5 degree Celsius limit of the Paris Agreement — making it in everyone’s best interest to prevent it.

It’s one planet and one climate system. We already have the “fix” for it: We must transition from use of fossil fuels — and not in some far-imagined future, but immediately.  We have all the tools we need. What we lack is the political will to use them; but the price tag of the “CO2 fix” will be far, far less than the massive cost of delay.

Or the ultimate cost: destruction of much of the planet, as we have known it for our entire existence as a species. Far, far slower than the devastation from a direct-strike comet — but no less inevitable. 

Julie Brigham-Grette, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Amherst is a member and former chair of the U.S. Polar Research Board.   

Pam Pearson is the director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative and a former U.S. climate negotiator.

Tags antarctic Arctic Climate change Fossil fuels geoengineering Global warming Julie Brigham-Grette melting glaciers Pam Pearson

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