A cautious report from the National Academy of Scientists suggests that it is now time to look into purposely re-engineering Earth’s climate in an effort to combat global warming. It’s an alarming concept, and one that was once considered to be pretty extreme—but as climate change worsens, the NAS warns that we ought to experiment on a small scale, and not for the reasons one might expect.
The theories behind hacking the Earth’s climate are surprisingly simple: the most popular concept is that of solar radiation management. SRM is a technique by which we could, in theory, minimize the sun’s impact on earth by injecting sulfur pollution high up into the air. The sulfur would mimic the behaviors of ashes from volcanic eruptions, which have already been shown to dampen the sun’s effect on Earth.
As Phys.org explained earlier this year: “A major volcanic eruption like that of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 can cause worldwide cooling of about 0.1C for about two or three years.” If the effects were replicated on a larger scale, then there is the potential that we could slow global warming as we work towards reductions in carbon emissions. And to some it’s quite appealing—SRM could be done for just a few billion dollars, potentially cheaper and more efficient than working out unilateral reductions in carbon emissions.
Most reasonable scientists, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agree that SRM isn’t a particularly good idea: we don’t fully know what the long term effects would be, and have absolutely no idea if those effects would be benign. Not to mention, we do actually know how to reduce carbon emissions, and we do know that that alone would slow climate change.
The National Academy of Scientists say in their report that they want to—perhaps—test this technology outdoors on a small scale. This isn’t so as we can launch into mammoth geoengineering projects ourselves, per se, but rather so as we can better understand the science in case other nations launch their own global cooling projects.
Speaking to Phys.org, report co-author Waleed Abdalati, a University of Colorado ice scientist and former NASA chief scientist explained “There will likely come a time we’re going to want to know the ramifications of that kind of action. … You’re talking about potentially changing weather and climate. You don’t want to do that without as good an understanding as you can possibly have.”
And it’s clear that no one within the NAS is taking this discussion lightly. Panel chairwoman Marcia McNutt, editor of the journal Science—in which the report was published—and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, underscored that the public should read this report “and say ‘This is downright scary.’ And they should say, ‘If this is our Hail Mary, what a scary, scary place we are in.'”
It’s important to note that the decision, domestically, to engage in geoengineering experiments will not be made by a group of scientists alone—a far larger discussion will be required. It’s a potentially dangerous endeavor, but one that the NAS now believes may be necessary to research if only to understand just how dangerous it may be.
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