Geoengineering and Human Health

Beautiful planet Earth and Sun

Climate change is closely associated with adverse human health impacts(1). Amongst the raft of options to reduce current and projected impacts is massive scale environmental engineering to reduce the rate of global warming – often referred to as geoengineering. The potential health benefits of such intentional environmental manipulation should be taken seriously as increasing numbers of people stand to be affected by changes in global climate due to warming. Yet geoengineering remains one of the more controversial responses to climate change.

The controversy surrounding geoengineering is understandable. Whereas many climate scientists see it as an opportunity to actively stem the tide of climate change(2), there are many who believe we should tread with caution(3). Others believe we should not be ‘messing’ with nature at all at this scale(4). Yet we have been “messing” with nature for most of human history. And as the most recent report by theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed, one of the consequences of this messing is global warming. Why then baulk at messing that could do some good?

Geoengineering, better referred to as climate engineering, is an attempt to actively alter earth’s climate for the better. This can be achieved by removing some of the heat trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and by shielding the earth from excessive solar radiant energy(5). The technology in many cases is feasible(2).  But in order to proceed, broad agreement is needed on what is appropriate and what is not.  So far, the only decisions have been to move forward with great caution(6), or to not even experiment with possible geoengineering solutions(7).

Yet in considering the pros and cons of geoengineering, there has not been much debate about the health impacts and benefits. Nor have the health risk and gains been routinely factored into the cost-benefit analyses. But if done right, active human control of the climate could be used to significantly reduce the human health impacts of excessive heat, cold, floods and drought. And a moderated climate would also help fight viral infections such as influenza, and parasitic diseases like malaria which have become a significant cause of global morbidity and mortality.

For the benefits of climate engineering to be realized though, there needs to be regulation and global governance. Because any attempt to control the earth’s climate will have global impacts, global oversight will be essential. This should oversee the research needed to establish the best approach to climate engineering and provide a level playing field for all stakeholders interested in the deployment strategies. Rules for the evaluation and mitigation of any adverse effects should also be set before climate engineering is begun.  This could be achieved through organizations such as the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and similar authoritative global groups.  However, whichever avenue is pursued, there is a pressing need to be timely, and to recognize the rights and needs of all economies – not just the wealthiest ones.

When used alongside improved efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions and provide clean energy, well-regulated geoengineering is an essential tool in the fight against ill health caused or worsened by climate change.

Effiong is a physician currently working with the Risk Science Center on the public health impacts of geoengineering. He is obtaining his graduate degree from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

^1. McMichael, Anthony J., Rosalie E. Woodruff, and Simon Hales. “Climate change and human health: present and future risks.” The Lancet 367.9513 (2006): 859-869.
^2. Keith, David. A Case for Climate Engineering. MIT Press, 2013.
^3. MacCracken, Michael C. “Geoengineering: Worthy of cautious evaluation?.Climatic Change 77.3 (2006): 235-243.
^4. Alan Robcock. “20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea.Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (2008).
^5. Caldeira, Ken, Govindasamy Bala, and Long Cao. “The science of geoengineering.” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 41 (2013): 231-256.
^6. Stocker, T. F., et al. “IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” (2013).
^7. Pidgeon, Nick, et al. “Deliberating stratospheric aerosols for climate geoengineering and the SPICE project.” Nature Climate Change 3.5 (2013): 451-457.

This article was first published in 2020 Science.


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