Is that a good idea?
Desert of the Real
Once considered a dystopian last resort that could only be realized in movies like “The Matrix” or “Snowpiercer,” the idea of reducing the amount of sunlight hitting our planet to reverse climate change has, in recent years, been gaining a small amount of traction. And now, CNBC reports, the White House will be officially coordinating a five year research plan to assess the feasibility of so-called “solar geoengineering.”
Obviously, implementing sunlight-blocking comes with massive risks, both to humans and the environment. But some advocates think the idea is at least worth entertaining, and see the White House’s cautious interest in it as a positive sign.
“Sunlight reflection has the potential to safeguard the livelihoods of billions of people, and it’s a sign of the White House’s leadership that they’re advancing the research so that any future decisions can be rooted in science not geopolitical brinkmanship,” Chris Sacca, founder of the climate tech investment fund Lowercarbon Capital, told CNBC.
According to the outlet, it’s not the first time the US government has toyed with the idea. A report to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 detailed a plan to spray the ocean with reflective particles with an estimated cost of $500 million per year. Today, the cost for similar aerosol-based Earth-cooling initiatives has gone up to $10 billion, a professor of environmental law told CNBC.
One prime candidate for stratospheric aerosol injection would be sulfur dioxide, the smelly stuff that billows out of volcanoes when they erupt — and out of the smokestacks of coal factories.
But since using sulfur dioxide is so blatantly polluting, others propose implementing marine cloud brightening, a process in which the reflectivity of clouds is increased by injecting them with sea salt.
While these are all interesting solutions, many worry that they’re merely a band-aid to a problem that requires global systemic change to address. Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, reaffirms emissions reductions as key to combating climate change, but isn’t dismissive of alternative solutions as being supplementary to cutting down on CO2.
“You cannot judge what the country does on solar-radiation modification without looking at what it is doing in emission reductions, because the priority is emission reductions,” Pasztor told CNBC. “Solar-radiation modification will never be a solution to the climate crisis.”
So solar geoengineering might be a useful tool — and that’s a big “might” — but it’s no substitute for reducing emissions. Ultimately, we just don’t know what kind of unintended consequences implementing these ideas might have. And the consequences we can predict, such as acid rain and respiratory illness in the case of using sulfur dioxide, are pretty hard to overlook.
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