There’s this wild, grandiose idea – mostly discussed in academic circles – that we could offset and reverse the effects of global warming by intentionally spraying reflective particles high into the atmosphere.
“[It] would mimic the effects of a volcanic eruption,” writes the Post’s Joel Achenbach. “The thin haze would reflect sunlight, cooling Earth’s surface. Our planet would literally be shinier when seen from space.”
The idea is taken seriously enough that the National of Academy of Sciences released a report today evaluating its merits. The report prudently concludes such geoengineering schemes “pose considerable risks and should not be deployed at this time.”
But I’d go a step further and say it’s an idea that almost certainly will never be practical and could be more dangerous than the problem it’s trying to solve
We do not understand the climate system well enough to predict the disruptive impacts injecting particles would likely have. Although we know with certainty they would result in a net cooling of the climate — just as adding greenhouse gases would ensure net warming — how the effects would play out at the local and regional scale is a huge wild card. It might cause drought in some areas, and bring floods to others.
Our climate models cannot, with reliability, predict the manifestation of regional precipitation changes induced by altering the composition of the atmosphere.
Applying this type of geoengineering plan would require the global community to effectively sign-up for unpredictable climate changes that could benefit some areas at the expense of others. It’s akin to seeking global agreement on the mechanics of playing God with the planet – establishing a world government to set and control a thermostat for Earth, and amicably living with whatever consequences.
Not to mention injecting particles into the atmosphere would not remove the carbon pollution that can persist in the air for decades to centuries with consequences beyond warming, including the acidification of the oceans.
It’s such a scientifically and politically thorny idea that voices on both sides of the climate change debate have passionately expressed opposition to it.
“[T]he geoengineering options most often discussed, like putting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere or orbiting tinfoil strips — these are simply nuts,” Al Gore – one of the most fervent advocates for climate action – told the Post’s Ezra Klein in 2013. “We shouldn’t waste a lot of time talking about them. Some people will anyway, but they’re just crazy.”
“Geoengineering schemes seem like really bad ideas full of nasty consequences (unintentional and otherwise),” writes Chip Knappenberger, who pens frequent columns for the Cato Institute about how the threat of climate change is exaggerated.
The best way to confront climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the root cause of the problem, and better understand and cope with the climate changes we are dealt. We need not introduce new ways to alter our climate and further tinker with our one and only livable planet.
If we can’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to sufficiently slow climate change, we may even have another way out. The National Academy of Sciences also issued a companion report that discusses “climate interventions” that would directly remove carbon from the atmosphere. To me, those are much more promising than other particle-injecting geoengineering schemes.
Advocates for particle-injecting geoengineering say it is wise to research it in case climate change accelerates so much, we need to employ it to fend off a planetary catastrophe. I’m not against expending a limited amount of effort to better understand its risks and opportunities but am unconvinced it will ever be a good idea scientifically or politically feasible.
Short-term fixes for long-term climate problems? Not so fast, experts say (Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post)
Elite science panel calls on U.S. to study climate modification (Chris Mooney, The Washington Post)
In Geoengineering Study, Science Academy Sees Merit in CO2 Removal, Risk in Reflecting Sunlight (Andrew Revkin, NY Times)
Climate Tools Seek to Bend Nature’s Path (Henry Fountain, NY Times)