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
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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.”

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