Climate engineering carries serious national security risks

GS Paper III

News Excerpt:

At the United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2024, African countries called for a moratorium on climate engineering, urging all precautions. Other nations, including the United States, pressed for a formal scientific group to study the risks and benefits before making any decisions.

Challenges posed by climate change:

  • Since the industrial revolution, humans have released 1.74 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, primarily through burning fossil fuels.
    • This carbon dioxide traps heat and warms the planet.
  • Climate change is causing natural disasters like heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and sea level rise, which are submerging small island nations and coastal areas.
    • The Paris climate agreement aimed to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial times, but the world is likely to pass that threshold within a decade.
  • One of the largest concerns for many countries when it comes to climate change is national security.
    • Risks to food, energy, and water supplies, as well as climate-induced migration, are national security issues.
  • Reducing emissions is crucial, but it won't solve the problem immediately.
    • Carbon dioxide removal projects, such as growing trees and direct¬† air capture devices, currently remove about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere per year.
    • However, humans continue to release over 37 billion tons annually through fossil fuel use and industry.
    • As long as the amount added is larger than the amount removed, droughts, floods, hurricanes, heat waves and sea level rise, among numerous other consequences of climate change, will keep getting worse.

Climate engineering as a potential solution:

  • It may take time to reach Net Zero emissions, but climate engineering could help in the interim.
    • Researchers who study climate change and national security are exploring whether climate engineering could help reduce the national security risks of climate change or make things worse.
  • Climate engineering, also called geoengineering, sunlight reduction methods or solar climate intervention is a set of proposed actions to deliberately alter the climate, could quickly arrest this temperature rise.
    • These actions include mimicking the cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions by putting large amounts of reflective particles in the atmosphere, or making low clouds over the ocean brighter.
      • Both strategies would reflect a small amount of sunlight back to space to cool the planet. But there are many unanswered questions about its effects.

Complexities surrounding climate engineering:

  • Cost and development: Climate engineering as compared to ending greenhouse gas emissions is expected to be a cheaper alternative.
    • However, it would still require billions of dollars and several years to develop and launch a fleet of planes to carry reflective particles into the stratosphere.
  • Unilateral action and the "Free Driver" problem: The issue with climate engineering is that a single country or coalition of countries could decide to take matters into their own hands and affect the world's climate unilaterally.
    • This is known as the "free driver" problem, and it can occur if a country with at least a medium level of wealth decides to pursue climate engineering.
    • For instance, countries that experience dangerous heat waves may want to cool their environment, while those who rely on monsoon precipitation may want to restore some of the dependability that climate change has disrupted.
      • Australia, for example, is currently exploring the possibility of rapidly cooling the Great Barrier Reef to prevent its demise.
  • Cross-border impacts: Climate engineering projects implemented in one country may have an impact on the temperature and rainfall patterns of neighbouring countries, which could lead to unintended consequences like crop failure, water scarcity, and flooding.
  • Differential effects: While some studies suggest that a moderate amount of climate engineering could result in widespread benefits compared to climate change, it is important to note that not all countries would experience the same outcome.
  • Geopolitical considerations:
    • It is also worth mentioning that once climate engineering is deployed, countries may be quick to blame it for extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts, even if there is no clear evidence to support their claims.
        • This could lead to conflicts between countries and demands for compensation.
    • While certain countries may benefit from climate engineering and become more resilient to geopolitical strife, others may suffer and become even more vulnerable.
  • Limited experimental data: Large-scale climate engineering has yet to be conducted, with only small experiments being carried out so far.
    • As a result, much of the information about its effects relies on climate models. While these models are excellent tools for studying the climate system, they are not well-suited for answering questions about geopolitics and conflict.

Conclusion:

Climate engineering could be a viable solution to climate change, but it carries risks. More research is needed to inform policymakers and ensure it doesn't worsen climate change's effects, particularly in vulnerable regions and poorest areas.

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