Engineered ‘solutions’ raise ethical questions

modis_wonderglobe_lrg

This true-colour image shows North and South America as they would appear from space 35,000 km (22,000 miles) above the Earth. The image is a combination of data from two satellites. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard 

NASA’s Terra satellite collected the land surface data over 16 days, while National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 

Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) produced a snapshot of the Earth’s clouds. 

Image created by Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=885&eocn=related_to&eoci=related_image

 

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small- and large-scale engineering

 

By Jim Mosher

Scientists are grappling with the ethical and technical implications of tinkering with the terrestrial ecosphere. At the small scale of nanoparticles and manipulation of DNA, the cat is already out the bag.

Now some scientists are looking at scaling up with a mind to modify the Earth’s climate.

At all scales, the ethical debate lags well behind.

The breadth and depth of our engineering expertise is increasing at such a rate that those scientists who try to assess even the most harebrained schemes are hardly in the game.

The latest, almost faddish, pursuit is geoengineering. A nascent and specialized field, it scales up our lofty ambitions to control the entire terrestrial ecosphere.

Geoengineering is a radical approach that, if applied willy-nilly around the globe, could have benefits in some regions and dire consequences in others.

The goal of whole-Earth geoengineering is straightforward enough: Use existing and still-sought technologies to ‘control’ climate and other large-scale terrestrial phenomena. Many engineers want to go big right off the bat, and change the global climate to achieve desired outcomes.

Seed the oceans with iron slurry to soak up carbon dioxide; envelope the Earth with sulfate particles to ‘regulate’ the amount of solar radiation penetrating the upper atmosphere; and so forth. The technical challenges are surmountable, some with existing technologies. However, we know that even small perturbations and changes in immense systems can lead to unanticipated, often deleterious, outcomes. (See Endnote 1.)

Venture capitalists, neo-conservative ‘think tanks’ and others are clamouring to embrace new geoengineering technologies — technologies that could well change the face of the planet for good and for ill.

Questions abound.

Can we risk creating even more global climate turmoil than already exists?

Who decides which elements of climate must be changed?

Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Consider the geopolitical tension that would be ignited if terrestrial tinkerers in North America manage to control the continent’s weather to the benefit of all citizens but with the unfortunate and unforeseen ‘ancillary’ effect of permanently altering climate patterns entrenched for millennia in Southeast Asia.

(Small wonder the militaries of so-called developed nations are keeping a weather eye on the latest advances in geoengineering. It’s not such a great leap to anticipate the development of counter-geoengineering technologies, as benefits accrue to one nation while negatively impacting others.)

Engineered solutions to a variety of challenges are nothing new. There are many small-scale, low-profile technologies that, cumulatively, have had widespread salutary benefits.

Green technologies — from solar power to hybrid gas-electric vehicles to geothermal heating and air conditioning — can reduce carbon dioxide emissions, for instance.

We know that carbon dioxide concentrations have increased precipitously since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The increase in emissions is in lockstep with global temperature increases.

Green technologies can reduce CO2 emissions, which last year hit 400 parts per million (ppm) — the highest ever concentration in both the human and paleological record. But it may be a matter of too little, too late.

Some believe we have crossed the climatological Rubicon. If that’s true, the best we can hope is that we maintain the new normal, though that will only happen if governments agree to emission caps suggested by scientists — those scientists, anyway, who have not been captured by the petroleum industry.

Geoengineering could mask the effects of global climate change, the acolytes of the new religion fervently hope. Geoengineering holds the promise of never having to say we’re sorry. We stop worrying about climate change because we can hide its effects below the folds of an engineered ‘solution’.

FINALLY AN ETHICAL DEBATE

Geoengineering has been in the popular news after an Australian ethics professor penned a book about the strategies poised to change our approach to global climate change. Prof. Clive Hamilton’s book, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, highlights both the potential benefits and costs of embracing geoengineering as a ‘solution’ to our earthly woes.

Instead of changing our behaviours, we change climate. This approach allows us to continue spewing greenhouse gases (GHGs) without having to modify our behaviour.

In May 2013, as noted earlier, the global concentration of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change, hit 400 parts per million (ppm). That’s the highest-ever concentration. At 400 ppm, we are hastening toward a tipping point beyond which even a change in our practices may not slow climate change.

One of the climate engineers’ more far-fetched ideas is to put up thousands of mirrors in the upper atmosphere to deflect the sun’s rays then, presto-magico, we cool the planet. We seed clouds to create rain during periods of drought. We send sulfur-containing particles into the upper atmosphere to absorb the sun’s radiant energy.

We ‘do’ stuff to the atmosphere, the oceans or the land to ‘human-engineer’ a climate that hides the effects of ongoing human-caused, global climate change. Small wonder that the ‘think tanks’ that mount well-financed offensives against the very notion of climate change have embraced the magic bullet of re-engineering the terrestrial climate.

The rush to engineered, whole ecosystem solutions is unsettling.

“In the end,” Prof. Hamilton wrote in a May 2013 op-ed in the New York Times, “how we think about geoengineering depends on how we understand climate disruption. If our failure to cut emissions is a result of the power of corporate interests, the fetish for economic growth and the comfortable conservatism of a consumer society, then resorting to climate engineering allows us to avoid facing up to social dysfunction, at least for as long as it works.

“So the battle lines are being drawn over the future of the planet. While the Pentagon ‘weaponeer’ and geoengineering enthusiast Lowell Wood, an astrophysicist, has proclaimed, ‘We’ve engineered every other environment we live in — why not the planet?’, a more humble climate scientist, Ronald G. Prinn of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has asked, ‘How can you engineer a system you don’t understand?’”

ENGINEERED ORGANISMS & NANO-SCALE PARTICLES

Engineers are problem solvers. They put science into practice. We owe much to the practical applications they develop. As a group, they are innovators, designers and practical scientists.

Bioengineering is one of many specialties in the field of engineering.

Organisms are ecosystems. So let’s engineer better organisms.

The development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) represents an engineered ‘solution’ — one made possible by advances in recombinant DNA technologies. Monsanto and other mega-corporations have simply followed the science. Their bioengineering efforts are now entrenched, in part because they ‘work’  — and have the salutary benefit of making people rich. (Monsanto has developed plant breeds, such as Round-up Ready canola and a host of others will probably come readily to mind.)

Monsanto let the genie out of the bottle. Bioengineering works. The science behind bioengineering is accepted. But the collateral damage (farmers who have lost generations of seed to invasive, bioengineered varieties, for instance) is not weighed in the overall risk-benefit equation. Nor is it known with any great certainty the effect of GMOs in a naturally-evolved ecosystem.

We feed the world not by addressing poor farming practice but by altering the genes of crops to make them resistant to blight and other natural challenges facing food production. Good in theory, perhaps.

More than that, genetic manipulation of an organism is patentable by the likes of Monsanto, one of the world’s largest corporations, famously known for its genetically modified crop plants.

Silver nanoparticles represent yet another ‘engineered solution’.

These wee things (See Endnote 2.) have been engineered as an antibacterial delivery agent, among a host of other uses. The silver atoms in these tiny particles destroy bacteria. Only problem: Bacteria are a foundational part of the tangled web of terrestrial and aquatic life.

More than half of the biomass in Lake Winnipeg, for instance, is that bacterial community we so revile. What would happen should silver nanoparticles (SNPs) be as lethal as some, albeit preliminary, studies suggest? Those studies conclude — and, again, they are early studies — that SNPs are a clear and present danger to algae, bacteria and plankton,  primary producers in the aquatic foodchain.

The use of SNPs and other engineered nanoparticles is unchecked. Worse, the ecological and other consequences of their use is virtually untested. There is a significant lag time between introduction of new engineered products and the (subsequent) research into both their efficacy and effect.

(A team from Trent University in Ontario is just this summer testing the effects of SNPs at the Experimental Lakes Area. The team’s early ‘test tube’ work in an austere laboratory setting and in small-scale mesocosms suggested cause for concern in freshwater systems. It’s hoped their work in the whole-lake ecosystems of ELA will provide more definitive data. In the meantime, wastewater from laundered clothes containing SNPs will continue to enter our waterways.)

We continue to evolve as human beings. It appears, however, that we face a host of technology-driven quantum leaps few understand or question. Engineering global weather opens the valve on a future we may not be able to control, for instance.

Large corporations are taking advantage of the surge in technological application while government regulators struggle to keep up with industry’s insatiable appetite for profit above principle.

Scientists and ethicists are trying to catch up. Full-scale, global geoengineering may be a few decades away but we have to question its premiss today — or leave future generations a potentially planet-changing mess that may well be too far advanced in its sweeping ecological consequence to alter.

If a course-altering change is needed, we should begin making the turn sooner rather than later.

Endnotes

1. Nova produced a sweeping documentary the complexity of the intricately intertwined terrestrial climate. Replete with stunning animations and satellite images.

Beautifully crafted, “Earth from Space” is a detailed textual and visual narrative that will captivate audiences of all ages. It’s available on You Tube.

2. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

“It is widely accepted in the context of nanoscience and nanotechnologies, the units [of nanotechnology] should only be those of dimensions, rather than of any other unit of scientific measurement. It is widely agreed that nanoparticles are clusters of atoms in the size range of 1–100 nanometer,” the authors of ‘Synthesis and applications of silver nanoparticles’ write.

The article is available online.

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