Mitigating climate change is on the agenda of every world government, but somehow little is done to curb global warming. Echoing a quick-fix approach to life so predominantly engraved in modern culture, some are considering sweeping climate change under the proverbial rug. These so called geo-engineering methods aim to fix climate change by altering the environment, but those ideas that are actually practical today only mask the effects and do nothing to treat the symptoms, a new report signed by 16 top scientists reads. The authors used this opportunity to make an appeal for reducing global emissions, else we might be forced to actually engineer the planet with unforeseeable consequences.

Geo hacks not the way to go

geological hacks

Image: Sam Doust

A few years back, one British panel asked for immediate financial support into researching climate-altering interventions. The newly released twin report,  Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration and Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool the Earth, is much more skeptical and cautions on how the world should approach geo-engineering solutions, which can be extremely dangerous and might end up doing more harm than good. What’s important though is that these matters are being discussed and analyzed now, when there is still time to act. The alternative is to act in the heat of the moment, once climate change becomes too “hot” to ignore. As such, agencies backed by both government and private ventures, like Bill Gates’ foundation, are currently research the viability of these methods.  Still, relying on a planetary hack – instead of cutting carbon dioxide emissions – is “irresponsible and irrational”, the report said.

“That scientists are even considering technological interventions should be a wake-up call that we need to do more now to reduce emissions, which is the most effective, least risky way to combat climate change,” Marcia McNutt, the committee chair and former director of the US Geological Survey, said.

The report discusses at large some of these planetary hacks. The two most popular methods are carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which basically involves siphoning CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it deep underground similarly to how some pilot coal-fired power plants are already doing, and albedo modification. The albedo is a scientific term that refers to how much sunlight is being reflected back in space. By injecting albedo altering chemicals in the upper atmosphere, like sulphur dioxide, more energy will be reflected and thus temperatures will be lower.

Albedo modification doesn’t lower CO2 concentration, however. The greenhouse gas will still remain in the atmosphere for centuries to come before it breaks down and, worse off, the method does nothing to curb ocean acidification. Up to 90% of all CO2 spewed into the atmosphere is absorbed by the planet’s oceans, causing a drop in pH severely affecting coral and plankton life, with spiraling consequences for the world’s ecosystems.

1. A million tons of sulfur dioxide would be needed to begin the cooling process. Luckily SO2, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants, is a common industrial chemical. 2. Inject it into the stratosphere. Load the sulfur dioxide into aircraft — converted 747s, military fighters, or even large balloons — and carry it up to the stratosphere. This will cost about $1 billion a year. 3. Wait for the chemical reaction. In a series of reactions, sulfur dioxide combines with other molecules in the atmosphere, ultimately forming sulfuric acid. This H2SO4 binds to water to form aerosol droplets that absorb and reflect back into space 1 to 3 percent of the sun's rays. (The particles also contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer, but scientists are researching alternate chemicals.) 4. Let the planet cool. Credit: Wired

1. A million tons of sulfur dioxide would be needed to begin the cooling process. Luckily SO2, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants, is a common industrial chemical. 2. Inject it into the stratosphere. Load the sulfur dioxide into aircraft — converted 747s, military fighters, or even large balloons — and carry it up to the stratosphere. This will cost about $1 billion a year. 3. Wait for the chemical reaction. In a series of reactions, sulfur dioxide combines with other molecules in the atmosphere, ultimately forming sulfuric acid. This H2SO4 binds to water to form aerosol droplets that absorb and reflect back into space 1 to 3 percent of the sun’s rays. (The particles also contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer, but scientists are researching alternate chemicals.) 4. Let the planet cool. Credit: Wired

Albedo intervention on a global scale, which seems to be viable according to computer models and real-life experience from volcanic eruptions, can also be dangerous on multiple levels. First, we might actually cool the planet more than we’d have to, secondly it’s unlikely that we can inject the sulfur compounds in a customized, distributed manner. Currents and wind gusts are too unpredictable for this to happen, so what might happen is some places will have a climate to their liking, but an African or Asian country might feel threatened because their rain patterns are now amok. Who should be in charge of spraying albedo modifying chemicals? How can smaller governments challenge a measure that affects the whole world? Conflicts and violence might arise. Overall, as you might have already guessed, the authors dismissed albedo intervention as absolutely nonviable.

“It’s hard to unthrow that switch once you embark on an albedo modification approach. If you walk back from it, you stop masking the effects of climate change and you unleash the accumulated effects rather abruptly,” Waleed Abdalati, a former Nasa chief scientist who was on the panel, said for The Guardian.

“The message is that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is by far the preferable way of addressing the problem,” said Raymond Pierrehumbert, a University of Chicago climate scientist, who served on the committee writing the report. “Dimming the sun by increasing the earth’s reflectivity shouldn’t be viewed as a cheap substitute for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It is a very poor and distant third, fourth, or even fifth choice. |It is way down on the list of things you want to do.”

CO2 capture on the other hand is benign and is actually the way to go. Unfortunately, it costs so much to deploy at a scale where it might actually mitigate global warming that it’s completely unpractical at this point.

“I think there is a good case that eventually this might have to be part of the arsenal of weapons we use against climate change,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University, who was not involved with the report.

Even so, compared to the albedo intervention, carbon sequestration is far ahead. The only problem with carbon sequestration is how much it costs, whereas the problem with albedo intervention is what might happen – we don’t know for sure!

“My view of albedo modification is that it is like taking pain killers when you need surgery for cancer,” said Pierrehumbert. “It’s ignoring the problem. The problem is still growing though and it is going to come back and get you.”

 

 

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