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Podcast: Goodbye to blue skies? The trouble with engineered solutions

The Hong Kong skyline. Photo by StockSnap via Pixabay.

  • Humanity has created a lot of ecological problems, and many of the proposed solutions come with giant price tags — or the things lost can even be priceless, like the sight of a blue sky — with no guarantee of solving the situation in the long term.
  • Many such solutions — like Australia’s deliberate introduction of the toxic cane toad, which has wreaked havoc on the country’s wildlife — create new problems.
  • Solar geoengineering to slow climate change would have the most visible effect to all, likely making the sky appear white: No more blue skies—but how would this affect the global plant community’s ability to photosynthesize, would it harm agriculture?
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert joins the Mongabay Newscast to talk about her latest book, “Under a White Sky,” which examines these interventions, the problems they come with and humanity’s seeming inability to stop turning to them.

From pumping aerosols into the atmosphere to combat climate change to gene-editing invasive species, human beings continue to conjure up technological or “miracle” fixes to ecological ills, many of which stem from previous things society has done. Whether it’s electrifying rivers to prevent Asian carp from entering the U.S. Great Lakes or $14.5 billion levees to keep the city of New Orleans from sinking, temporarily, humanity continually creates mega solutions that often fail, while harming biodiversity.

“We seem incapable of stopping ourselves,” argues journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. Her latest book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future,” explores many of these projects, chapter by chapter, in what she describes as “sort of a dark comedy.”

She joins the Mongabay Newscast this week to talk about what she found while writing the book and why she urges readers to be skeptical of these machinations.

Listen here:

One doesn’t need to go back very far in time to see a human-made intervention gone awry, the effects of which still linger to this day. Australia, which does not have any native toad species, introduced a particularly invasive one to combat beetles affecting sugarcane crops in Queensland. Today the toad species is considered an enormous pest, as it is toxic and animals die from eating it.

The proposed solution? Genetically alter them to not produce toxins, an effort Kolbert says that is also doomed to fail.

The cane toad (Rhinella marina). Native to South and Central America, the toxic species was deliberately introduced in Queensland, Australia, in 1935, and today it is considered an invasive pest, poisoning native fauna. Image by Paul Williams/Iron Ammonite Photography via Flickr. Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Some human-made interventions, which are still in the research phase, raise more concerns about impacts experts do not fully understand or even know yet. One such project is solar geoengineering, for which over 60 academics are urging the cessation of any research, signing an open letter last year detailing their concerns. The technology spews aerosols into the atmosphere creating an artificial shield that blocks the sun’s UV rays, whitening the sky to temporarily cool the Earth.

The effect on our planet is hard to determine precisely, but the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 offers a glimpse, as it temporarily lowered global temps by 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9°F) after it blanketed the stratosphere with particulates, similar to what solar geoengineering entails. Even more severe, the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 in Indonesia ushered in “the year without a summer,” bringing about famine in many parts of the world.

Paintings around the years following the eruption of Mt. Tambora depict a reddish hue caused by tephra (a particulate produced by eruptions) in the atmosphere. Image: A photograph of Two Men by the Sea (1817) by Caspar David Friedrich via Wikimedia Commons. (PD-US).

Many experts say the risk of deploying solar geoengineering is simply too high, but Kolbert says it’s still on the table. Some experts argue that since we aren’t on track to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, interventions like geoengineering are inevitable.

All these solutions, Kolbert says, are part of a societal “habit of mind” that she ultimately cautions readers against.

“We reach for these interventions that allow us to continue doing what it is that we want to do, which is often…destroying the natural world.”

Related reading:

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PARKER, D. E., WILSON, H., JONES, P. D., CHRISTY, J. R., & FOLLAND, C. K. (1996). The impact of Mount pinatubo on world-wide temperatures. International Journal of Climatology, 16(5), 487-497. doi:10.1002/(sici)1097-0088(199605)16:5<487::aid-joc39>;2-j

Banner Image: The Hong Kong skyline. Photo by StockSnap via Pixabay.

Mike DiGirolamo is Mongabay’s audience engagement associate. Find him on Twitter @MikeDiGirolamo, Instagram or TikTok and Mastodon.

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