THE LIGHTBULB

The idea of artificially modifying the Earth’s climate to reverse human-driven global warming has gotten a pretty bad rap.

There’s the worry that geoengineering is a “moral hazard” — because just knowing there’s a technological fix available could induce us to pollute even more.

And there’s the concern that one prominent geoengineering technique — filling the Earth’s stratosphere with special particles such as sulfate that cool the planet by reflecting back some sunlight into space — could trigger other unwanted consequences. Critics say it could, for instance, reduce rainfall in some locations.

New research released this week, though, could assuage some of these concerns enough to spark renewed interest in geoengineering.

But at the same time, it’s reawakening a fraught debate over the wisdom of using technological interventions — rather than simple cuts in greenhouse gas emissions — to reduce global warming.

A Harvard University study led by Peter Irvine found that geoengineering the climate to cut global warming in half — by managing how much sunlight reaches the Earth — would not lead to disproportionate or unjust impacts around the globe.

The study in Nature Climate Change uses a high-resolution climate model called HiFLOR from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. This model has recently produced some concerning results about hurricanes, which it finds are intensifying more rapidly in the Atlantic region because of human-caused climate change.

In this high-powered model, the study found, geoengineering the climate by reducing the sunlight reaching the Earth didn’t seem to produce many significant disparities between different regions, such as a higher occurrence of droughts in some parts of the globe.

“The big conclusion is that, with a model that really should do a better job on regional climate, that the level of inequality is really stunningly low,” said David Keith, a Harvard geoengineering researcher who co-wrote the paper.

Keith is not proposing that we actually geoengineer the climate based on this or any other study — just that the idea warrants more research.

“What I think it says is there is enough reason to believe there might be something worthwhile here, that the world should take a much more serious look,” he said.

Ken Caldeira, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., is another geoengineering expert who was not involved in the study. He said the findings are consistent with other work.

“The climate models project that for 'reasonable amounts' of aerosols injected into the stratosphere, most climate change can be offset for most people most of the time,” Caldeira said in an email.

But that’s different, he noted, from whether we should trust these models to make big decisions about geoengineering actions.

“Do we believe the physical climate models enough to want to intentionally tinker in very complicated natural systems?” Caldeira asked.

Other scientists had similar reactions:

But though the study is being used to support more research rather than immediate intervention, it has still prompted critical reactions.

Alan Robock, a Rutgers University researcher who has also studied geoengineering, argued that since the study presents an idealized version of geoengineering in a climate model — reducing solar radiation affecting the Earth directly, rather than injecting any substance in the atmosphere to accomplish this effect — it avoids some more concerning implications.

“There is no way to do what they modeled, as we cannot turn down the Sun,” Robock wrote in an email. “The technology to create an aerosol cloud in the stratosphere does not currently exist. Various designs have been described that would cost $50,000,000,000 to $200,000,000,000 (50-200 billion dollars) per year to implement, and which would result in significant increases in acid rain as well as a host of other possible risks.”

Robock wasn’t the only one to point this out.

Those who want to keep researching geoengineering do have this in their favor — the fact that few other big solutions seem on the horizon.

Global warming has been on a tear lately and significant global emissions cuts have still not materialized. If anything, a number of countries, such as the United States and Brazil, have been moving away from promises.

Solar and wind are growing fast, but no one thinks they’re growing fast enough. And although technologies exist to remove carbon from the atmosphere, they would require an extreme scale-up to make a difference. They’re still very far away, in other words.

As global warming continues to advance and nears the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius — and as more people grasp the implications of that — geoengineering probably will continue to come up for discussion.

POWER PLAYS

— Trump signs major public lands legislation: President Trump signed the most sweeping public lands package in a decade Tuesday, a rare bipartisan law introduced by 50 senators that protects hundreds of miles of wild rivers and millions of acres of land.

The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, named after the longest-serving congressman, a Michigan Democrat, also creates monuments to civil rights heroes and an icon of the civil rights movement, Medgar Evers. According to the Interior Department, which oversees most of the nation’s public lands, the 650-page act is composed of 100 individual bills introduced by half of the Senate and a few House members.

“This law will benefit every state, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Her optimism was shared by an opponent, Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). “This legislation is an important reminder that when we work in a bipartisan way, the American people come out on top.”

—Darryl Fears

More reaction:

In a statement, the National Wildlife Federation reiterated the importance of the package but challenged the administration's commitment to public lands, pointing to Trump's proposed budget. “This milestone ironically coincides with the release of the administration’s budget, which shows the president is not putting his money where his mouth is,” Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the federation, said in a statement. “He recommended just $8 million for land purchase — a pittance of what is needed to provide public access and protect our resources.”

The Center for Western Priorities called it “something every American can celebrate” but also pointed to the administration's other actions: 

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) :

Trump's son Donald Trump Jr.:

— Corn wars: The Trump administration advanced a plan that moves toward fulfilling the president’s campaign promise to expand sales of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol. A proposed rule change from the Environmental Protection Agency would allow year-round sales of the higher-ethanol blend, called E15. “Tuesday’s proposal would allow sale of fuel mixed with a higher blend of ethanol year-round, ending a summertime ban imposed out of concerns for increased smog from the higher ethanol blend,” the Associated Press reports. “Beyond  increasing the amount of ethanol allowed in vehicle fuel, the EPA is proposing regulatory changes in the ethanol program.” Environmental groups oppose such an expansion, and the AP notes some groups expect legal challenges to the proposal, claiming the Clean Air Act prohibits year-round sales of E15. 

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) praised the proposal:

— Top labor group criticizes the Green New Deal: The national arm for U.S. labor unions is the latest to offer criticism of the ambitious climate resolution, expressing concern about how the plan could affect U.S. workers, as The Post’s Colby Itkowitz, Dino Grandoni and Jeff Stein write.

In a letter to Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, called the deal “not achievable or realistic.” “We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered,” they wrote.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) tweeted his agreement:

In a tweet, Markey pushed back:

— Trump challenges climate science in yet another tweet: The president in a Tuesday morning tweet quoted a Fox News guest who dismissed the idea of climate change. Trump quoted Patrick Moore, who he referred to as the “co-founder” of Greenpeace, who called climate change “not only Fake News, it’s Fake Science,” in a “Fox & Friend” segment. Trump has repeatedly expressed doubt about the impact of climate change, such as in repeated tweets that dismiss global warming because of cold temperatures and by playing down a landmark report on climate change from his own government.

Greenpeace also said Moore is not a co-founder but a “‘a paid spokesman for a variety of polluting industries for more than 30 years,’" CNN reports. “Moore, who is not a climate scientist but who has degrees in forest biology and ecology, played a significant role in Greenpeace Canada for several years early in the organization's existence, according to Greenpeace's website, but he did not help found it.”

— Zinke cleared of accusation he tried to interfere with Pennsylvania election: A government ethics watchdog cleared former interior secretary Ryan Zinke of allegations that he arranged an announcement about mine cleanup grants while leading the agency as a way to affect a special election in Pennsylvania. The Office of Special Counsel said in a letter that the investigation “found no evidence that you violated the Hatch Act during this event,” CNN reports. Zinke told CNN the conclusion is “no surprise.” “Every false allegation and subsequent investigation has resulted in the same conclusion: I followed all rules, regulations, and most importantly the law,” he said.

— Food stamp cuts in hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico: The U.S. territory has started cutting benefits paid out by its food stamp program that helps more than 1 million residents amid congressional impasse over providing the island with additional aid. Puerto Rico had reduced the benefits by an average of 25 percent for 676,898 people as of Tuesday, The Post’s Jeff Stein reports, "as part of an effort to sustain a program that has seen a dramatic increase in demand in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017."

THERMOMETER

— Stormy weather ahead in the Central U.S.: An unusually strong late-winter storm is expected to continue hitting the western Plains on Wednesday, bringing flooding rains, severe storms, raging winds and blizzard conditions. “The zone from Texas north through the Dakotas and Minnesota is expected be hit hardest by the powerhouse storm. It is likely to meet the criteria of a ‘bomb cyclone,’ its pressure dropping 24 millibars in 24 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. One meteorologist said the storm’s “eye-like” feature will be similar to a hurricane, and Samenow adds the “predicted minimum pressure of this storm … is equivalent to a low-end hurricane.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the review of national monuments.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2019.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on the EPA’s management of chemical risks.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on opportunities to improve access, infrastructure and permitting for outdoor recreation on Thursday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— “Unprecedented” avalanche onslaught in Colorado: Primetime for avalanches in the region is just beginning, but since the beginning of March, the state has seen “historic and unprecedented” avalanches, The Post’s Ian Livingston reports. The region has already seen more than the average number of avalanches for an entire season. “Given the state’s high-elevation and numerous mountains, avalanches are no rarity in Colorado. An average of 2,500 happen annually. But picking up more than 20 percent of the winter average in 10 days is unusual,” he writes.