David Suzuki: We can’t geoengineer our way out of climate change

Seawater is sprayed into clouds to make them reflect more sunlight (Illustration: Nasa)
Seawater is sprayed into clouds to make them reflect more sunlight (Illustration: Nasa)

Because nature doesn’t always behave the same in a lab, test tube or computer program as it does in the real world, scientists and engineers have come up with ideas that didn’t turn out as expected.

DDT was considered a panacea for a range of insect pest issues, from controlling disease to helping farmers. But we didn’t understand bioaccumulation back then – toxins concentrating up the food chain, risking the health and survival of animals from birds to humans. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, seemed so terrific we put them in everything from aerosol cans to refrigerators. Then we learned they damage the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful solar radiation.

Unintended consequences

These unintended consequences come partly from our tendency to view things in isolation, without understanding how all nature is interconnected. We’re now facing the most serious unintended consequence ever: climate change from burning fossil fuels. Some proposed solutions may also result in unforeseen outcomes.

Oil, gas and coal are miraculous substances – energy absorbed from the sun by plants and animals hundreds of millions of years ago, retained after they died and concentrated as the decaying life became buried deeper into the earth. Burning them to harness and release this energy opened up possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors. We could create machines and technologies to reduce our toil, heat and light our homes, build modern cities for growing populations and provide accessible transport for greater mobility and freedom. And because the stuff seemed so plentiful and easy to obtain, we could build vehicles and roads for everyone – big cars that used lots of gas – so that enormous profits would fuel prosperous, consumer-driven societies.

We knew fairly early that pollution affected human health, but that didn’t seem insurmountable. We just needed to improve fuel efficiency and create better pollution-control standards. That reduced rather than eliminated the problem and only partly addressed an issue that appears to have caught us off-guard: the limited availability of these fuels. But the trade-offs seemed worthwhile.

All that carbon catching up with us

Then, for the past few decades, a catastrophic consequence of our profligate use of fossil fuels has loomed. Burning them has released excessive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a thick, heat-trapping blanket. Along with our destruction of natural carbon-storing environments, such as forests and wetlands, this has steadily increased global average temperatures, causing climate change.

We’re now faced with ever-increasing extreme weather-related events and phenomena such as ocean acidification, which affects myriad marine life, from shellfish to corals to plankton. The latter produce oxygen and are at the very foundation of the food chain.

Had we addressed the problem from the outset, we could have solutions in place. We could have found ways to burn less fossil fuel without massively disrupting our economies and ways of life. But we’ve become addicted to the lavish benefits that fossil fuels have offered, and the wealth and power they’ve provided to industrialists and governments. And so there’s been a concerted effort to stall or avoid corrective action, with industry paying front groups, “experts” and governments to deny or downplay the problem.

Enter the techno-fixes

Now that climate change has become undeniable, with consequences getting worse daily, many experts are eyeing solutions. Some are touting massive technological fixes, such as dumping large amounts of iron filings into the seas to facilitate carbon absorption, pumping nutrient-rich cold waters from the ocean depths to the surface, building giant reflectors to bounce sunlight back into space and irrigating vast deserts.

But we’re still running up against those pesky unintended consequences. Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, studied five geoengineering schemes and concluded they’re “either relatively ineffective with limited warming reductions, or they have potentially severe side effects and cannot be stopped without causing rapid climate change.” That’s partly because we don’t fully understand climate and weather systems and their interactions.

That doesn’t mean we should rule out geoengineering. Climate change is so serious that we’ll need to marshal everything we have to confront it, and some methods appear to be more benign than others. But geoengineering isn’t the solution. And it’s no excuse to go on wastefully burning fossil fuels. We must conserve energy and find ways to quickly shift to cleaner sources.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. 


About Dr. David Suzuki

David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. He is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way.

5 thoughts on “David Suzuki: We can’t geoengineer our way out of climate change

  1. Here’s a really interesting presentation on geoengineering by NASA. It’s quite informative, and is more so trying to outline some of the risks and uncertainties involved with geoengineering. It’s fairly long though! It’s about an hour long, plus another 30 minutes of Q & A.


  2. It would be terrific if Dr. Suzuki could contact those former supporters of the Climate Thingey who are jumping ship, so he can figure out how to slip over the side of the Good Ship Climate Change with little noise or fuss. This is a good start…at least he doesn’t want climate engineering.
    Dr. Suzuki might think of contacting Dr. Fritz Varenholt: ” a prominent Socialist and a father of Germany’s environmental movement, has become another strong critic of the IPCC’s alarmist global warming doctrine. His lack of trust began while serving as an expert reviewer for an IPCC renewable energy report as the renewable energy division head of Germany’s second largest utility company.

    Upon discovering and pointing out numerous factual inaccuracies to IPCC officials, they simply brushed them aside. Stunned by this, he began to wonder if IPCC reports on climate change were similarly sloppy. After digging into the IPCC’s climate report he was horrified to find similar incompetency and misrepresentations, including climate models that were fudged to produce exaggerated temperature increases.

    Dr. Vahrenholt concluded: “The facts need to be discussed sensibly and scientifically, without first deciding on the results.” And although CO2 may have some warming influence, he believes that the sun plays a far greater role in the whole scheme of things.”

    Or he might contact journalist Donna Laframboise, or at least read her continuing expose of
    the IPCC.

  3. A note to the webmaster. The links in this article are coloured red but unfortunately almost half of the male population has difficulty seeing the colour red. For me, the links just make the whole article appear kind of mottled. Blue would work much better.

    1. Where do I start? This is a very well written article. It even seems calm, but the “alarm-ism” is rife. I’ll take a shot at a few points…
      DDT was used excessively (and to great success, almost eliminating malaria in the USA). Banning DDT is a big mistake, unless it is your unstated goal to control the world’s “excess population” by letting malaria run rampant. DDT should be used today, in a more responsible manner (not banned). The USA’s National Park Service ecologist, David Graber (writing in the LA Times in 1989), wrote: “…I, for one, cannot wish upon my children or the rest of Earth… a human-managed planet… some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along…” (and wipe out humans from the planet)… These greenies see us, humans, as a plague upon the earth. Somehow, the greenies do not throw themselves off of cliffs to save the rest of us; though not stated so clearly, I believe the greenies want “deniers” like me to die off (so the greenies can inherit the earth). Somehow, a greenie does not see himself as a plague upon the earth; only the rest of us are. So, banning DDT, while not directly a virus to wipe us out, certainly has caused the painful death of millions and millions of people, where malaria is rampant. So, banning DDT is the greenies first holocaust, killing millions. Next is “biofuels” – the USA is burning food in place of gasoline, when much of the rest of the world is starving. Greenies holocaust number two, a crime against humanity. Next, this foolish idea that a little bit of carbon dioxide is going to ruin everything… Total BS. CO2 does not form “a thick, heat-trapping blanket” as the fruit fly doc says… CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere, from the first tiny bit until about 20 parts per million, does “warm” the earth verily, very slightly… the large contribution is not from CO2 but from water vapor. As the concentration of CO2 increases from 20 PPM to 40 PPM, the earth warms a tiny, tiny bit more; from 40 to 60 PPM, a teeny tiny bit more, but by the time you reach 200 PPM, going from 200 PPM to 400 PPM does not warm the earth at all. This is known as ‘the law of diminishing returns’ … If you hang a blanket over a window to block out the sunlight, one blanket darkens the room considerably. A second blanket makes a difference, but if you have nineteen blankets over the window, will it get any darker if you make it twenty blankets? Or forty blankets? Nope. By this point (in this analogy) you’ll have noticed all the sunlight that comes in AROUND the blankets… adding more blankets has no effect. So it is with CO2, it makes a difference from none to 200 PPM, but after that, no warming. But, below 200 PPM CO2, NO PLANTS LIVE. If no plants, no animals. The earth, as we know it, dies, below 200 PPM CO2. But hey, with all this CO2 floating about, did you know that the earth is blooming? Yeah, there’s a satellite in space that measures plant life, and whadya know, the plant life is growing and growing. For one, that will remove CO2 into biomass, for two, that will add more oxygen, and for three, that will increase FOOD-plant yields. CO2 is good, keep it up. We will all benefit. CO2 will add no more warming that what it has already, and we needed that little bit. Meanwhile, thermostatic emergent weather events (like thunderstorms) will regulate the temperature of the earth right where it is now. None of the models that these alarmists use can adequately deal with nonlinear emergent weather events, like thunderstorms… yet they form the core of the planet’s thermostat. On the surface, water evaporates, carrying 540 calories of heat energy per gram. This moisture finds its way up to the upper parts of the troposphere (above the CO2 “blanket”) where it condenses (yielding 540 calories per gram), and then freeze (yielding another 90 calories per gram) delivering heat energy above the gaseous materials that absorb thermal blackbody radiation – mistakenly called “the greenhouse effect” – and now the heat can be radiated into space, or conducted into the stratosphere, unencumbered by the absorptive effects of the methane, CO2, and gaseous water vapor far below. This “water cycle” transfers heat, not as blackbody radiation, but as “latent” heat energy, stored in the phase change of water, to the upper troposphere. Besides this, the water vapor that rises and condenses a bit farther down, causes clouds, which reflect back the sun’s energy, which doesn’t exactly cool the earth, but prevents heating of the earth (same thing, in the long run)… Neither of these two methods are adequately emulated by the mathematical masturbation taking place in General Circulation Models – the “models” that the ‘alarmists’ use to tell us that “global warming” (GW) is caused by man (AGW) and will be catastrophic (CAGW). Of course that is what the models tell us, because that is what they were programmed to do! So the third Greenie holocaust is the misdirection of effort (and funds)… the billions of dollars that our various nations have committed to the various CAGW causes – carbon capture and storage, cap and trade (of carbon emissions), “renewable energy” folly, and the money paid to the “scientists” who, with distressing regularity, stridently cry out that mankind must de-industralize, de-develop, and de-populate, or we’re all doomed… all this effort and money could have been used to apply DDT to mosquito netting, bedding, and the walls of dwellings, in areas where malaria is rampant. All this money and effort wasted because of “the sky is falling” CAGW BS could have built hospitals, trained doctors, drilled water-wells, and myriad other things to save the lives of suffering humans (typically, humans who don’t burn fossil fuels in the first place!). So, the greenies are guilty of, not a holocaust, but of three holocausts. Meanwhile, they try to shout me down (or shut me up) because I’m a “denier”. Unlike most of you, I’ve READ the papers. These CAGW chicken-littles, who cry “the sky is falling” (are many of you too young to remember that childhood story?)… are not telling you the truth.

Comments are closed.