Report: Don’t Try to Block the Sun to Fix Climate Change

Geoengineering solutions for global warming not ready for prime time.

The planet Venus passes before the sun, a very rarely-seen event, on June 5, 2012 near Orange, California. 
National Journal
Jason Plautz
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Jason Plautz
Feb. 10, 2015, 6:15 a.m.

Sure, we can fight the ef­fects of cli­mate change by clean­ing the emis­sions from cars and put­ting scrub­bers on the smokestacks of power plants. But doesn’t a massive prob­lem re­quire a big solu­tion like, say, spray­ing sul­fur di­ox­ide in­to the at­mo­sphere to re­flect the rays of the sun back in­to space?

That’s the concept be­hind geoen­gin­eer­ing, a broad term that refers to hy­po­thet­ic­al strategies to ar­ti­fi­cially en­gin­eer the Earth’s cli­mate. For ex­ample, the at­mo­sphere spray­ing, which would mir­ror the ef­fects of a vol­can­ic erup­tion, would ef­fect­ively cool the Earth in a bid to stem glob­al warm­ing. The­or­et­ic­ally, that could of­fer a fix if tem­per­at­ures rose so rap­idly that crops could no longer grow or sea levels went per­il­ously high.

The con­cepts have been kicked around for a long time. It was Ben­jamin Frank­lin who is cred­ited with first mak­ing the con­nec­tion between vol­ca­noes and cool­ing, when in 1783 he no­ticed a “con­stant fog” over Europe that meant the sun’s rays’ “sum­mer ef­fect in heat­ing the earth was ex­ceed­ingly di­min­ished.” And vari­ous na­tion­al and sci­entif­ic stud­ies have kicked the con­cepts around since the 1960s.

So is geoen­gin­eer­ing ready to take off? In a word: no.

A ma­jor re­port re­leased today by a Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil com­mit­tee says it’s too early and much too risky to start tinker­ing with the cli­mate, even if glob­al warm­ing is get­ting worse.

A pan­el of aca­dem­ics, en­gin­eers, and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, chaired by former U.S. Geo­lo­gic­al Sur­vey Dir­ect­or Mar­cia McNutt, did say that al­bedo modi­fic­a­tion — the tech­nic­al term for at­mo­spher­ic en­gin­eer­ing — could po­ten­tially “rap­idly off­set” some of the con­sequences of glob­al warm­ing. It’s the­or­et­ic­ally pos­sible, al­though un­proven, that with­in a few years of spray­ing, the Earth could be cooled.

But, the re­port found, the idea car­ries “en­vir­on­ment­al, eth­ic­al, so­cial, polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and leg­al risks as­so­ci­ated with in­ten­ded and un­in­ten­ded con­sequences.”

The un­pre­dict­ably of cli­mate change and a lack of know­ledge means that al­bedo modi­fic­a­tion could upend pre­cip­it­a­tion or at­mo­spher­ic pat­terns, the re­port stated. The so­cial im­pacts of block­ing out the sun are un­known, but they could carry ser­i­ous polit­ic­al con­sequences de­pend­ing on what coun­tries pos­sess the tech­no­logy to con­trol the at­mo­sphere.

The tech­no­logy could even be used in a mil­it­ary fash­ion, the NRC re­port warns (the 1998 Avengers movie fea­tures Sean Con­nery as the vil­lain­ous Sir Au­gust De Wynter, who pro­duces a weath­er-con­trolling ma­chine to black­mail world lead­ers).

More to the point, block­ing out the sun does noth­ing to fix the prob­lem of green­house gases, whose ef­fects will be felt for cen­tur­ies. Spray­ing the at­mo­sphere is noth­ing more than a short-term fix.

“That sci­ent­ists are even con­sid­er­ing tech­no­lo­gic­al in­ter­ven­tions should be a wake-up call that we need to do more now to re­duce emis­sions, which is the most ef­fect­ive, least risky way to com­bat cli­mate change,” said McNutt, now the ed­it­or-in-chief of the journ­al Sci­ence.

A second study also fo­cused on more proven car­bon di­ox­ide re­mov­al and se­quest­ra­tion tech­niques, say­ing they would do more to take car­bon out of the eco­nomy and lim­it the dir­ect emis­sions that are con­trib­ut­ing to cli­mate change.

McNutt said the com­mit­tee de­cided to sep­ar­ate car­bon di­ox­ide re­mov­al from at­mo­spher­ic modi­fic­a­tion to avoid con­flat­ing the two. The former concept is more proven, even if its still in its early tech­no­lo­gic­al stages, but is likely to be de­ployed. As the re­port lays out, the linger­ing con­cerns with car­bon di­ox­ide re­mov­al are about cost, rather than the risk-based con­cerns about al­bedo modi­fic­a­tion.

Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences Pres­id­ent Ral­ph Cicer­one made it clear that mit­ig­at­ing emis­sions is the best course of ac­tion, but he said that “every year of in­ac­tion on the emis­sions re­duc­tion does in­crease the like­li­hood” that more drastic in­ter­ven­tion will be ne­ces­sary. Thus, he said, “the sci­entif­ic com­munity needs to have an­swers and a much bet­ter un­der­stand­ing” of geoen­gin­eer­ing.

Rafe Pom­er­ance, a former State De­part­ment cli­mate of­fi­cial who was not in­volved in the NRC re­port, said in an in­ter­view that with ex­treme storms and sea-level rise show­ing the grow­ing risk of cli­mate change, the time is ripe to put every op­tion on the table.

“How can we not think about this?,” he asked. “If you think there are cata­stroph­ic out­comes in the fu­ture, why wouldn’t you think about re­sponses to avoid it? If you don’t in­ter­vene, and we keep go­ing on this tra­ject­ory, then we may want these op­tions. In the end, it’s just go­ing to be a com­par­is­on of risks.”

What We're Following See More »
INITIATIVE TARGETED GUN RETAILERS, OTHERS
Trump Ends Obama’s “Operation Choke Point”
31 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"The Trump administration has ended Operation Choke Point, the anti-fraud initiative started under the Obama administration that many Republicans argued was used to target gun retailers and other businesses that Democrats found objectionable. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd told GOP representatives in a Wednesday letter that the long-running program had ended, bringing a conclusion to a chapter in the Obama years that long provoked and angered conservatives who saw Choke Point as an extra-legal crackdown on politically disfavored groups."

Source:
LIBERALS RAISE CONFLICT OF ISSUE QUESTIONS
Gorsuch to Deliver Speech at Trump Hotel
36 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"Liberal groups are raising questions about a speaking appearance Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch plans to make next month at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Gorsuch is scheduled to headline a luncheon celebrating the 50th anniversary of conservative group The Fund for American Studies on September 28, days before the next SCOTUS term begins October 2. Steve Slattery, a spokesman for The Fund for American Studies, said Gorsuch had nothing to do with venue choice, which was made long before the group asked Gorsuch to speak."

Source:
CYBER COMMAND ELEVATED AT DOD
Administration Faces Exodus of Top Cybersecurity Officials
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The Trump administration has lost a handful of individuals serving in top cybersecurity roles across the federal government in recent weeks, even as it has struggled to fill high-ranking IT positions. The developments present hurdles for the new administration and speak to the longstanding challenge the federal government faces in competing with the private sector for top tech talent." Among those resigning is Richard Staropoli, "a former U.S. Secret Service agent who served as chief information officer (CIO) of the Department of Homeland Security for just three months," and Dave DeVries, the CIO at OPM. Separately, the White House announced today that President Trump has directed that United States Cyber Command be elevated to the status of a Unified Combatant Command focused on cyberspace operations.

Source:
SAYS TRUMP JUST ATTACKING REPUBLICANS
Former Top Aide to McConnell Says GOPers Should Abandon Trump
22 hours ago
THE LATEST
“YOU CAN’T CHANGE HISTORY, BUT YOU CAN LEARN FROM IT”
Trump Defends Confederate Statues in Tweetstorm
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login