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Antacids for the Sea? Artificial Ocean Alkalinization and Climate Change

Wil Burns's picture
Visiting Professor, Environmental Policy & Culture Program Northwestern University

Dr. Wil Burns is a Visiting Professor in the Environmental Policy & Culture Program at Northwestern University. Prior to this, he was the Founding Co-Director of the Institute for Carbon...

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  • Aug 31, 2020

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There is increasing urgency for large-scale deployment of carbon-removal approaches to help avoid passing critical climatic thresholds.Given the severe risks ofmany terrestrialmethods at extremely large scales, there is a compelling need to also assess the potential of marine negative-emissions technologies, such as artificial ocean alkalinization.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 31, 2020

Thanks for sharing, Wil!

It seems like the large-scale ideas like this make people feel a bit queasy, simply because there's no way to know for sure what the unintended impacts may be. How can ideas like these, moving towards even geoengineering type ideas, be tested, experimented with, and verified in a way that provides confidence on whether the impacts will be what we expect? 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Aug 31, 2020

I find public attitudes toward projects that hint of "geoengineering" to be exasperating.

Humans have been impacting the environment on a globally significant scale for millenia. Forests have been cut down, range fires have been used to promote grasslands for grazing herds, animal and fish species have been hunted and fished to extinction, etc. True, the industrial revolution and the widespread use of fossil fuels took human environmental impact to a whole new level. We could never previously have had any significant effect on the composition of the planet's atmosphere. But our sheer numbers and the disproportionate share of planetary resources we consume guarantee that the human impact on the environment will be large, regardless of what we do or don't do.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't do our best to fully understand the impacts and the potential unintended consequences of any large projects we undertake. But we're extremely inconsistent and selective about when and how we choose to raise concerns about environmental impacts. Professed concerns have become political weapons of opposition wielded by groups whose actual motives for opposition may or may not have anything to do with the nominal concerns.

The fact is that people in general really, really suck at quantitative risk assessment. We overwhelmingly judge risk based on our perceptions of how those around us feel about it. If opponents of a project question its safety, supporters are placed in a no-win situation. If they don't defend its safety, opponents can claim vindication of their charges. But if supporters respond to the charges, it keeps the issue in the news. Opponents can answer that "of course they'd say that; they're the ones backing it". And the listening public is likely to think "where there's smoke, there's fire". 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 31, 2020

Well said, Roger-- I feel your frustrations here. You're right that everything we do is done in a way that alters the environment, so it's interesting to see the difference in attitudes here. While geoengineering may elicit images of some plot by a James Bond villain or something, we overlook the deforestation or air pollution of existing processes because they've been normalized, I suppose? Will be interesting to watch the public debate evolve as we look for necessary climate solutions. 

Wil Burns's picture
Wil Burns on Sep 4, 2020

Sage observations. "Geoengineering" has also become associated primarily with proposals to disperse large quantities of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. It has made it difficult to discuss discrete options that may pose far fewer risks. In my opinion, we ultimately need to abandon the term "geoengineering" and characterize each individual option on the merits. As you suggest, this requires stringent assessment protocols, and ongoing monitoring. However, it also requires that we engage in comparative risk assessment, given the risks attendant to human institutions and ecosystems attendant to unchecked climate change. I fear that many engage in a bit of magical thinking, which is that some of the climate intervention options pose risks, and thus should never be considered, because we can "easily" structurally decarbonize the economy in a few years. That is not what experts e.g. the IEA tell us, and that bears remembrance.


Wil Burns's picture
Wil Burns on Sep 4, 2020

It's a very important question, Matt, and as we tried to emphasize in the piece, there's plenty of reasons to approach an option of this nature with an extremely precautionary lens. I do think that the world community is engaged in the drafting of rules that facilitate this approach. The London Dumping Convention has established a good risk assessment framework, and has taken a precautionary approach by limiting current ocean iron fertilization activities to small-scale research activities. The Convention on Biological Diversity has taken a similar approach. I think this is salutary; moving from bench research to mesocosm to small-scale field research permits us to characterize these activities in a methodical manner. This should be coupled with ongoing monitoring and replication in a wide array of marine environments.

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