If we’re going to fix climate change, we’ll have to get creative

The developing world deserves reparations from wealthier nations as compensation for the harmful climate change effects that are mostly our fault. It’s us who have tainted our global commons by emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and us whose actions have led to extreme weather and other disasters in the world’s most vulnerable regions.

But a strictly financial mea culpa from rich nations won’t be enough. Rich countries should also invest in geoengineering projects to provide solutions for those on the front lines of climate change: those who cannot afford to pay for more adaptive and resilient infrastructure or who happen to be geographically unfortunate.

According to World Bank reports, populations in low-income countries are most exposed to the natural disasters associated with climate change and face disproportionately higher economic losses, as well as long-term obstacles to growth and standards of living. Natural disasters cause an average of approximately $160 billion in damages per year, kill nearly 100,000 people and produce more than 140 million victims who suffer some kind of loss. Many become a new kind of migrant, climate refugees. Among the top 10 countries affected by disaster mortality in 2014, according to the international disasters database, seven are classified as lower income. Those from low-income countries comprise the majority of disaster victims.

Yet the largest emitters of the greenhouse gases that lead to climate change and in turn environmental disasters are rich, industrialized countries. And they have effectively admitted their culpability in environmental crimes.

At the recent United Nations climate change conference in Paris, where 196 nations agreed to reduce their carbon emissions to keep global temperature rise less than 2 degrees Celsius, another decision was reached that calls for developed countries to scale up their level of financial support to less-developed countries for mitigation and adaptation activities. The goal is to provide $100 billion annually by 2020 and to further provide appropriate technology and capacity-building support.

“Some of the impacts of climate change can’t be reversed,” said Secretary of State John F. Kerry in remarks at the Paris conference. “Therefore, we have a moral responsibility to adapt and prepare for those impacts and enable the most vulnerable among us to be able to do the same.”

Preparation plans and strong infrastructure can only go so far, and even the best may not hold up each and every time a disaster strikes. Mitigating the source of these disasters through geoengineering, or artificially modifying the Earth’s climate, is a different breed of mitigation tactic that can and should go hand in hand with natural defense plans.

While eccentric designs have been proposed — a giant parasol that could be constructed between the Earth and Sun to help control the amount of energy that reaches the planet, or blanketing all the world’s deserts with sun-reflective material — there are other approaches that do make sense today.

Take marine cloud brightening. One-quarter of all ocean species depend on coral reefs for food and shelter, and humans get food, medicines, shoreline protection and tourism jobs. But reefs are being destroyed by global temperature rise and increasing ocean acidity. One way to provide them with a level of protection could be to spray fine seawater onto clouds stationed over the reefs. The droplets would make clouds brighter, reflecting sunlight back into space and cooling the ocean below. Considering island nations are among those most at risk of climate change and often among the poorest, marine cloud brightening has merit.

Weather modification also has its place. Drought-stricken populations could benefit from cloud seeding, a process in which ice-forming particles are spread into clouds to stimulate precipitation. New, laser-targeted approaches could lead to rain on demand.

Carbon sequestration methodologies are also relatively recent, but equally worth our attention. Capturing carbon from the air using filters or vacuum-like devices could speed up a process normally performed by trees and other carbon sinks (which we are destroying at increasing rates), and could help to reduce the main cause of anthropogenic global warming.

To be sure, geoengineering has its risks. No one knows what the unintended results of tinkering with the global water cycle by cloud seeding or what effects unnatural carbon reduction schemes might unleash. There are online groups entirely devoted to the “clear and present danger” of climate engineering practices. They cite, often with alacrity, the threats that disrupting climate patterns through geoengineering programs could pose to health and property. Take, for example, the the deadly 1952 flood that occurred in England directly as a result of artificial rainmaking. Or the potential for earthquakes from storing carbon dioxide underground.

The National Research Council, which operates as part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, reckons in a recent report that radical climate intervention strategies are risky and cost-prohibitive, yet deserve further federally funded research and examination.

Still, it is by human hand that our environment has been degraded, and it is up to humans to innovate and devise a modified world that is safe for all. There may be no turning back to pre-industrial times, but that does not mean we have to turn our backs on those trapped by industry’s offenses. Tangible solutions are necessary to address the needs of those affected by climate change. Strategic options have timed out.

Thomas M. Kostigen is a New York Times-bestselling author and journalist. His most recent book is National Geographic’s Extreme Weather Survival Guide.

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