By Alex Kimani
The Arctic Blast has exposed the U.S. energy grid as being ill-prepared for climate change, with electric grid regulators now saying the U.S. needs to rapidly develop vast supplies of power storage—including giant batteries and hydrogen storage.
But we probably saw it coming.
Six years ago, 196 Parties at COP 21 in Paris agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels in a bid to prevent catastrophic and irreversible warming of the planet. The 2015 Paris Agreement works on a five-year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action, with countries originally designed to submit their plans for climate action known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in 2020.
The obvious solution is to lower our GHG emissions by burning less fossil fuels and relying more on clean energy sources.
But one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases has come up with an even more radical plan to fight climate change: Dim the sun.
A week ago, the National Academies of Sciences, the nation’s top science institute, released a monster report outlining how the United States could block the sun if the world fails to lower CO2 emissions fast enough. Blocking the sun was a research topic that was regarded as taboo just a few years ago, perhaps in the realm of Elon Musk’s idea of terraforming Mars by nuking the red planet to release enough CO2 to help it trap more of the sun’s heat.
But Musk is in good company: Bill Gates and several other private donors are backing Harvard University’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program. You will probably be hearing a lot more about solar geoengineering (as technologies that attempt to block the sun are called) as the world increasingly grows desperate to avoid self-annihilating.
Solar Geoengineering, Explained
Geoengineering is a blanket term for several technologies that attempt to alter Earth’s physical qualities on a large scale. Cloud seeding, where airplanes flush clouds with particulate matter in order to coalesce into rain, and carbon capture, are good examples of geoengineering.
Solar geoengineering is simply an umbrella term for technologies that attempt to block sunlight from reaching Earth’s atmosphere or surface.
The new report chronicles three of the most common ideas to hack the sky: Injecting tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere, brightening marine clouds, and thinning cirrus clouds.
Scientific research has proved that all three options could potentially cool the Earth by either blocking incoming sunlight or, in the case of cirrus thinning, allowing more heat to escape. The most common method is to reflect sunlight away from Earth using aerosol particles in the atmosphere, the instigating event of the 2013 film Snowpiercer, that turns Earth into a lifeless ice ball. Almost any substance that can be aerosolized into an airborne fine particulate that can float in clouds like a gas can work.
Yet, all three methods come with serious risks that could disrupt the global climate in other ways while doing nothing to address serious problems such as local pollution or ocean acidification inherent with burning fossil fuels and other industrial activities.
Whereas aerosol solar geoengineering study appears simple and straightforward, the reality is more complex.
The meteor strike that is suspected to have killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is thought to have done so by blanketing the Earth in a layer of aerosol dust. More recently, the 2010 eruption of an Icelandic volcano that blocked the entire sky all the way into Europe was a classic atmospheric aerosol event. In fact, aerosols, like ozone layer-destroying chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) aerosol sprays, have frequently been blamed for playing a part in climate change. Blocking incoming sunlight could potentially alter massive rainfall patterns such as monsoon rains that millions of Indian farmers rely on.
But scientists are now asking for serious investments in solar geoengineering research if we are faced with a worst-case scenario of extreme climate emergency but with little clue how to deal with it.
The National Academies of Sciences report calls for $100 million to $200 million investments spread out over five years with stringent objectives. The researchers behind the Harvard project, the Gates-supported Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), say we must take solar geoengineering seriously if we need to take drastic action against climate change and intends to start small-scale experiments:
“We plan to use a high-altitude balloon to lift an instrument package approximately 20 km into the atmosphere. Once it is in place, a very small amount of material (100 g to 2 kg) will be released to create a perturbed air mass roughly one kilometer long and one hundred meters in diameter. We will then use the same balloon to measure resulting changes in the perturbed air mass including changes in aerosol density, atmospheric chemistry, and light scattering. [W]e plan to release calcium carbonate, a common mineral dust. We may also release other materials such as sulfates in response to evolving scientific interests.”
No one is suggesting we start spraying clouds with calcium carbonate tomorrow. But understanding how solar geoengineering could affect the world should probably be a part of our climate change playbook.