Climate Engineering: A Last-Ditch Plan to Save the Planet

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Volcanic eruptions have been proven to block the sun and cool the planet. Could we slow down global warming by doing much of the same? Getty Images

It's been a big news week for global warming: President-elect Donald Trump’s sat down with Al Gore (who characterized the discussion as “interesting”); a new study revealed that global warming and climate change will hit close to home with wetter, more intense storms over the coming years; and sea ice on both poles was found to be at record lows for this time of year

Given the regressive policies that the Trump administration promises to implement, is there any hope left? One fairly extreme solution is climate engineering, an idea that Ted Parson, faculty co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA says might soon be necessary to slow extreme weather and rising tides. We spoke to Parson about what climate engineering plans involve, the risks associated with them, and how a few rogue nations could slow down our warming planet, for better or for worse.

What, exactly, is climate engineering? 

You can intervene in the global carbon cycle by either taking carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere or shifting the balance of energy between the sun and the earth. People call those carbon methods and solar methods. 

Carbon methods are very similar to current technologies taking carbon dioxide out of the smokestacks of power plants that were burning fossil fuels. They suck carbon dioxide out of the gas, compress it, and stuff it underground where it is stable. Solar methods, on the other hand, are things you might do so that a little bit less sunlight gets to the earth to heat up the climate. People have talked about launching a mirror or a Mylar film into space and putting it at a point between the earth and the sun where it’s gravitationally stable. You can reduce a few tenths of a percent, or maybe a percent, of the sun’s energy that way.

Are these science fiction dreams or something we could actually implement now?

There’s really not a lot of question that these could be done. There’s a lot more interesting investigation of solar methods now, because they act fast and they’re unbelievably cheap. The questions about doing it that way are questions about efficacy, cost, and, crucially, risks and side effects. It’s really pretty well-known right now that even with present technology, these could be done in a crude, dirty, and perhaps dangerous way. More research and refinement is needed to figure out how to do it in a not-crude way.

Why aren't leaders or scientists more focused on climate engineering?

Any time you talk about climate engineering solutions, you have to say the crucial, essential, unavoidable piece of responding to climate change is cutting emissions. Emissions have to get down to zero. Climate engineering stops the problem from getting worse. Wherever we get to once we’ve cut emissions to zero, we are still at that level of elevated CO2 and greenhouse gasses and that level of climate change. And if that’s a climate that we don’t want to live with, we have to find some way to come backward.

A plan like this would require massive international cooperation, right?

With solar methods in particular, anything that you did would have a global effect. If some powerful state announces that they’ve done it or asserts the right to do it, or charges that somebody else is already doing it and it’s harming them, that could be a challenge to international stability and would carry a real risk of violent conflict. In order to think about doing this safe and effectively, we need to think about international mechanisms of controls and regulations.

There’s a lot of really risky scenarios associated with this. But it is crucial that you don’t avoid them by saying you’re not going to think about it, which has been a lot of the reaction from groups and individuals so far. Even if you turn from sinners to saints on mitigation, you still have a long trail of really bad future climate change risks that you’re already committed to. Climate engineering could possibly help reverse those.