Why We Need to Test Geoengineering—Soon

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The writer and activist Bill McKibben has a saying: “You can’t negotiate with the planet.” What he means is that climate change will continue to unfold based on the amount of carbon we spew into the atmosphere—along with other physical factors—whether we chose to believe in it or not.

That’s worth remembering as we enter this silly season of electoral politics, when it seems as if the entire Republican Party has decided that it doesn’t believe in climate change, evidence be damned. But the truth is that even though the current occupant of the White House has an avowed belief in global warming, it hasn’t made much difference for the climate. Although U.S. carbon emissions fell in 2009 because of the recession, as the economy rebounded in 2010 so did our production of greenhouse gases, reaching 5.6 billion metric tons, while global carbon emissions hit an all-time high of 30.6  billion metric tons. There’s little reason to expect worldwide carbon emissions to fall anytime soon—the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that global carbon emissions could rise by more than 50% by 2035, thanks largely to developing nations. Because carbon can remain warming the atmosphere for hundreds of years, all our emissions will accumulate like compound interest—which means if we get unlucky and the worst predictions for climate change begin to manifest in the decades ahead, it could be too late to cut carbon and save ourselves.

All of which means that it would be very useful to have a Plan B ready should floods and heat waves and storms and sea level rise really get out of hand. (I mean, more than right now.) As it happens, there is one—geoengineering. Geoengineering refers to a number of different schemes to directly reduce the temperature of the Earth, rather than—or in addition to—efforts to cut carbon emissions and increase carbon sinks. In brief, most of them involve either trying to increase the reflexivity of the atmosphere—by amplifying high-altitude cloud cover or even constructing mirrors in space—or aiding the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon.

More from TIME: Geoengineering: A Quick, Clean Fix

You can read more about the details of some of the different geoengineering theories in TIME articles here and here—and you can read a whole lot more in 2010 books by Eli Kinitsch and Jeff Goodell—but suffice it to say scientists are pretty confident that geoengineering will work in principle. But practice is another thing altogether, because the side effects of trying to directly adjust the planet’s thermostate could be enormous, and at the very least are unpredictable. The last thing we’d want is a global warming cure that’s worse than the disease.

That’s exactly what a recent government report on geoengineering warned. The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, looked at current research on geoengineering and concluded that right now at least, it’s not possible or advisable to hack the planet:

Climate engineering technologies do not now offer a viable response to global climate change. Experts advocating research to develop and evaluate the technologies believe that research on these technologies is urgently needed or would provide an insurance policy against worst case climate scenarios–but caution that the misuse of research could bring new risks.

More from TIME: Can Geoengineering Help Slow Global Warming?

As Goodell wrote in his book, one of the problems with geoengineering research is that “there’s no practice planet Earth” to field test these theories on with complete safety. But the reality is that the long-term threat of extreme climate change is so great that we need to begin field research on geoengineering now. It’s not an excuse to stop trying to reduce carbon emissions—not that we’re having much success there—but it’s far better perform the solid science needed to understand whether geoengineering could indeed by a viable backup plan. Geoengineering research might seem like the worst-case scenario stuff, but the real disaster would be to wait until climate change becomes truly catastrophic before desperately trying to hack the planet. Wise policy usually ins’t born in a major crisis.

More from TIME: Why It’s a Mistake to Ban Research on Geoengineering?

The good news is that geoengineering field research is finally starting to happen. Later this month British scientists—backed by a $2.5 million grant from the Royal Society Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council—will begin one of the first major field tests of geoengineering. They’ll attempt to create—on a small scale—an artificial volcano, sending a balloon 0.6 miles above the Earth. The balloon will pump water into the air, but it will allow the researchers to test the engineering for a possible geoengineering scheme that would involve pump sulfate particles, which can block sunlight and cool the Earth.

That’s exactly what happens with real volcanic eruptions, which we know can reduce global temperatures. Oxford engineering lecturer Hugh Hunt told the Guardian how the real plan might work:

The whole weight of this thing is going to be a few hundred tonnes. That’s the weight of several double-decker buses. So imagine how big a helium balloon do you need to hold several double-decker buses – a big balloon. We’re looking at a balloon which is possibly 100-200m in diameter. It’s about the same size as Wembley stadium.

This hose would be just like a garden hose, 20km long and we pump stuff up the pipe. The nice thing about it is that we can really have a knob, if you like, which we can control to adjust the rate at which we inject these particles.

It might sound crazy. But better to find that out now, rather than later.

More from Ecocentric: Are the Freakonomics Folks Off Base on Geoengineering?

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME