The challenges presented by climate change are very real, but the political will to confront them currently does not exist. Doing it the “right way” means substantial changes to the way we travel, generate power, and grow food to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s an awful lot of work, though. A new study examines proposals to modify the atmosphere through a process called geoengineering. The researchers say it may actually be feasible, but others worry this shortcut could come with unknowable drawbacks down the line.
We’re all familiar with the basic mechanisms of climate change by now. Humans have taken to extracting energy-dense hydrocarbons from the ground to power the world. That means there’s substantially more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than plant life can absorb, and that bottles up heat in the atmosphere to raise global temperatures — the so-called greenhouse effect.
Most efforts at addressing climate change are aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions. However, by some estimates, we’re turning the ship too slowly to avoid catastrophic impacts from climate change. Scientists have proposed (half seriously) that we could mimic the effects of a massive volcanic eruption by putting reflective particles in the atmosphere. This form of geoengineering counters climate change by lowering the amount of solar radiation that reaches Earth. So, there’s still a greenhouse effect, but it all evens out in the end.
NOAA data shows recent years have been significantly warmer than average.
One of the chief concerns with geoengineering is that some regions could experience worsening conditions. The new analysis from researchers at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT suggests that any negative climate impacts would be extremely minor. The team developed a model that assumed the release of enough sulfur dioxide to counter half of the warming effect from carbon dioxide. According to the results, only 0.4 percent of ice-free land would see deleterious effects.
Members of the team are careful to point out that this analysis does not mean a green light for geoengineering. There are numerous issues to consider before undertaking such an action. For example, who has the authority to modify the atmosphere shared by all the world? Who would even pay for it? Geoengineering on this scale could cost hundreds of billions per year. At that point, isn’t it better to use that money on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? No one is going to start pumping sulfur dioxide into the sky tomorrow, but it may get to that point someday.
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