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Climate Change

Published on March 12th, 2019 | by Steve Hanley


New Harvard/MIT Geo-Engineering Study Says Less Is More

March 12th, 2019 by  

There are a lot of people who shrug off the threat of an overheating planet with these words: “When it is absolutely necessary, humanity will find a way to ‘science its way’ out of the worst consequences.” These are largely the same people who were sitting on the fantail of the Titanic listening to the band play “Nearer My God To Thee” and expecting the captain and crew to somehow “science their way” out of the impending disaster.


Credit: Almay

The whole concept would be amusing if it weren’t so sad. By and large, these are the same people who deny the work of climate scientists and deny that the Earth is heating at all. Why they would put their trust in science on the one hand while bashing scientists on the other is an enigma.

For the “We’ll science our way out of this” crowd, geo-engineering is a magic bullet that will allow the world to continue dumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere indefinitely. Basically, it involves injecting enormous amounts of sulfur dioxide — the stuff that spews out of volcanoes when they erupt — into the stratosphere where it would prevent some of the sunlight supplied by the sun from reaching the surface of the air.

The Krakatoa Effect

Call it the Krakatoa effect. When that volcano erupted in 1883, it lead to a period of global cooling as its dust and gases blotted out the sun. Some suggest Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream was not some surrealistic composition created while the artist was under the influence of recreational drugs but rather an accurate depiction of the sky over Norway at the time it was painted.

Many critics of geo-engineering suggest it is a blunt instrument that no one knows how to control with any degree of accuracy. It could easily disrupt climates in one part of the world more than others, bringing floods to some and drought to others.

A New Study From Harvard & MIT

But a study published by scientists at Harvard and MIT in the journal Nature Climate Change on March 11 entitled “Halving warming with idealized solar geoengineering moderates key climate hazards,” suggests cutting the amount of sulfur dioxide roughly in half compared to what most geo-engineering advocates are recommending could mitigate much of the harm climate scientists say will result from runaway carbon emissions.

Co-author Kerry Emanuel of MIT tells Science Daily,“For years, geoengineering has focused on compensating for greenhouse gas induced warming without worrying too much about other quantities like rainfall and storms. This study shows that a more modest engineered reduction in global warming can lead to better outcomes for the climate as a whole.”

“The analogy is not perfect but solar geoengineering is a little like a drug which treats high blood pressure. An overdose would be harmful, but a well-chosen dose could reduce your risks. Of course, it’s better to not have high blood pressure in the first place but once you have it, along with making healthier lifestyle choices, it’s worth considering treatments that could lower your risks.”

David Keith of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science says,”Some of the problems identified in earlier studies where solar geo-engineering offset all warming are examples of the old adage that the dose makes the poison. This study takes a big step towards using climate variables most relevant for human impacts and finds that no IPCC-defined region is made worse off in any of the major climate impact indicators. Big uncertainties remain, but climate models suggest that geoengineering could enable surprisingly uniform benefits.”

Lead author Peter Irvine of Harvard adds, “The places where solar geoengineering exacerbates climate change were those that saw the least climate change to begin with. Previous work had assumed that solar geoengineering would inevitably lead to winners and losers with some regions suffering greater harms; our work challenges this assumption. We find a large reduction in climate risk overall without significantly greater risks to any region.”

Professor Keith tells The Guardian, “I am not saying we know it works and we should do it now. Indeed, I would absolutely oppose deployment now. There’s still only a little group of people looking at this, there’s lots of uncertainty. There is the possibility that solar geoengineering could really substantially reduce climate risks for the most vulnerable.”

Some Scientists Aren’t Convinced

Not everyone is so sure. Alan Robock, a geophysics professor and researcher at Rutgers University, tells The Guardian the study does not examine the potential effects of spraying aerosols into the atmosphere. “They focus in this paper on temperature and water availability in different regions Those are only two things that would change with stratospheric aerosols.”

He adds that his studies examine 27 reasons why cooling the Earth with aerosols might be a bad idea, not the least of which are that the technology could cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year and pose complicated ethical questions, such as whether people have a right to see a blue sky. (See The Scream, above.)

“We’re not able right now to say whether, if global warming continues, we should ever decide to start spraying this stuff into the stratosphere,” he says. “Would solar-radiation management, would geoengineering make it more dangerous or less dangerous? That’s the question we have to answer, and we don’t have enough information.”

Some people suggest the solution to global warming could be bio-engineered humans with a social conscience rather than geo-engineering the environment. The world is made up of two kinds of people — those who make things happen and those who wonder what happened. Since the overwhelming majority of people fall into the latter category, the prospect of the human race taking any realistic action to address global heating is imperceptibly small. 


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. His motto is, "Life is not measured by how many breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away!" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

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