Article image

Survey: Mother Nature is more likely to solve climate change than geoengineering

Climate change remains one of the defining challenges of our era, sparking an array of proposed solutions and interventions. Amidst these discussions, a new research paper sheds light on public sentiment towards different climate change mitigation strategies. The study highlights a significant inclination among people towards natural solutions like tree planting and rainforest conservation over more technological methods like geoengineering.

Social media as a lens on public opinion

The comprehensive research involved the analysis of over 1.5 million social media posts from the platform X (formerly known as Twitter).

Utilizing advanced artificial intelligence-driven language models, researchers from the University of Cambridge, the Mercator Research Institute, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and Boston University have identified a clear pattern in the public’s emotional response to various climate change solutions. In particular, solutions labeled as geoengineering.

Geoengineering elicits “fear and disgust”

Posts related to the term “geoengineering” were often coupled with negative sentiments such as “disgust” and “fear.” This term is frequently linked to radical technological strategies. These include spraying aerosols into the atmosphere or deploying solar space sails. Ideas like these seem to invoke a great sense of apprehension within the public discourse.

Conversely, nature-based efforts, including the preservation of carbon-storing ecosystems like rainforests, kelp forests, and peat bogs, garnered more positive expressions, notably “joy.” These findings reflect a broader comfort and preference for natural strategies to tackle climate change.

Assistant Professor Ramit Debnath is a Cambridge Zero Fellow at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the study. He emphasized the importance of social media in capturing the zeitgeist of public opinion. Debnath suggests that social media conversations offer a wealth of data that can inform how the voting public might engage with proposed climate solutions.

Climate action urgency

The study’s findings are set against a backdrop of urgent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC asserts that merely reducing greenhouse gas emissions is insufficient to stave off severe climatic shifts.

Active climate engineering, whether through greenhouse gas removal or solar radiation management, is deemed necessary to prevent temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius. This is the acknowledged temperature threshold for preventing catastrophic weather phenomena.

Researchers meticulously combed through X-user posts spanning from 2006 to 2021, examining public discourse on 20 emerging climate technologies. These ranged from ecosystem restoration and afforestation to more invasive methods, like modifying cloud production and managing solar radiation.

Finn Müller-Hansen is the lead author from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC). He pointed out the limitations of traditional survey methods in capturing authentic public opinion. The study’s approach revealed more about genuine public engagement with these issues.

Sentiment analysis reveals a divide

The sentiment analysis painted a complex picture. Nearly 800,000 posts discussing “geoengineering” displayed a dominance of negative over positive sentiments.

However, when focusing on specific strategies, a clear preference emerged for greenhouse gas removal techniques over solar manipulation strategies.

The study concluded with a crucial recommendation. The authors strongly suggest avoiding the use of the term “geoengineering,” which is often misunderstood and encompasses a wide range of both natural and technological climate mitigation efforts.

There is significant public anxiety associated with geoengineering. Because of this strong sentiment, it may be beneficial for scientists and policymakers to change course. They should either clarify these concerns, or pivot towards promoting nature-based solutions that currently enjoy more public support.

Listening to the public’s voice

In summary, the insights from this study emphasize the need for those in the scientific and policymaking spheres to actively consider public opinion when promoting and implementing climate action strategies.

With the public seemingly more supportive of nature-based solutions, there is an opportunity to align scientific innovation with public sentiment to foster a collaborative effort in combating climate change.

More about geoengineering

Geoengineering, also known as climate engineering, stands as a testament to human ingenuity and the lengths we are prepared to go to protect our planet. It is the intentional large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change.

The concept has progressed from a science fiction plotline to a serious scientific consideration, as the battle against global warming becomes more urgent. In addition, as outlined previously, the word “geoengineering” has earned a very negative connotation around the world.

Understanding geoengineering and its divisions

Geoengineering is divided into two main categories: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM). Each employs different methods and technologies, but they share a common goal. Both strategies aim to reduce the impact of climate change on Earth’s ecosystems and human societies.

Carbon Dioxide Removal: Scrubbing the sky

Carbon Dioxide Removal strategies aim to reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, addressing the root cause of global warming. These methods include:

  • Afforestation and Reforestation: Planting trees on a massive scale to absorb CO2 through photosynthesis.
  • Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS): Combining biomass energy production with carbon capture technologies to sequester CO2.
  • Direct Air Capture (DAC): Using chemical processes to capture CO2 directly from the ambient air and store it underground.
  • Ocean Fertilization: Adding nutrients to the ocean in specific areas to increase the growth of phytoplankton that absorb CO2.

Solar Radiation Management: Reflecting the sun’s heat

Solar Radiation Management techniques do not reduce greenhouse gases but instead reflect a portion of the sun’s energy back into space to cool the Earth. SRM approaches include:

  • Stratospheric Aerosol Injection: Mimicking the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions by injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere.
  • Cloud Brightening: Spraying seawater into the atmosphere to enhance cloud reflectivity, which in turn reflects more sunlight away from Earth.
  • Space-Based Reflectors: Placing mirrors or other reflective devices in orbit to deflect sunlight before it reaches the Earth.

Debate over geoengineering implementation

Implementing geoengineering is not without controversy. As mentioned previously, proponents argue that, with the slow progress in reducing emissions, geoengineering may be necessary as a temporary measure to avoid catastrophic climate effects.

Opponents, however, warn of unintended consequences and the potential for geopolitical conflicts over governance and usage.

Ethical and environmental considerations

The ethical considerations of geoengineering are complex. There are concerns about the moral hazard of geoengineering, suggesting it could reduce the political and public pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, environmental risks such as changes in precipitation patterns or the acidification of oceans from increased CO2 levels cannot be ignored.

Governance and regulation

The global nature of climate systems means that the effects of geoengineering can cross borders, leading to the need for international governance and regulation.

Decisions about when, how, and by whom geoengineering techniques should be used are challenging and require an unprecedented level of global cooperation.

Future of geoengineering

With the effects of climate change becoming ever more apparent, geoengineering remains a contentious but potentially vital tool in the global effort to curb environmental disaster.

As such, it demands rigorous scientific research, careful consideration of risks and benefits, and transparent discussions on an international scale.

Research and experimentation

Continued research and small-scale experimentation are critical for understanding the feasibility and effects of geoengineering. Scientists are actively pursuing field trials for various techniques, particularly for Carbon Dioxide Removal, which is generally seen as less risky than Solar Radiation Management.

To move forward responsibly, it is worth stating once again that there must be a concerted effort to engage the public in understanding geoengineering’s potential role in climate strategy. Educating about the possible benefits and risks will be essential for building societal consensus and informed decision-making.

A call for responsible stewardship

In summary, geoengineering offers a plan B for climate change. It offers a set of emergency measures that we may have to deploy if all else fails. However, its implementation must be done with caution, transparency, and international cooperation.

We must balance innovation with the stewardship of our planet, ensuring that geoengineering remains a safeguard for our future, not a crutch that delays necessary action against the root causes of climate change.

The full paper is published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day