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Yes, Virginia, We Can Block the Sun (Maybe). No, We Shouldn’t.

Yes, Virginia, We Can Block the Sun (Maybe). No, We Shouldn't.

There’s recently been a little more attention paid to geoengineering, the idea of fighting global warming not just through decarbonization or regulation, but through using technology to lower the temperature of the Earth.

Scientists are proposing an ingenious but as-yet-unproven way to tackle climate change: spraying sun-dimming chemicals into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The research by scientists at Harvard and Yale universities, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, proposes using a technique known as stratospheric aerosol injection, which they say could cut the rate of global warming in half.

The technique would involve spraying large amounts of sulfate particles into the Earth’s lower stratosphere at altitudes as high as 12 miles. The scientists propose delivering the sulfates with specially designed high-altitude aircraft, balloons or large naval-style guns.

In fact, there is soon to be a balloon-borne experiment designed to test out the idea using calcium carbonate, which has the advantage over the sulfates of not, you know, destroying the ozone layer, which is only just beginning to recover from our little inadvertent geoengineering experiment involving HCFCs.

Technically speaking, it is possible to do something like this. Global warming is when the temperature of the planet rises because increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (among other things) trap more infrared radiation, warming the planet up. However, the planet will cool if the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere increases. The most common culprit for this are volcanos — the Mount Pinatubo eruption famously dropped the temperature of the planet by over half a degree (temporarily). And the brief “global cooling” fad of the 1970s was based on the idea that aerosols in the atmosphere were proving to be a more powerful influence than global warming, a thesis was discarded by the end of the 1970s.

So … it could work. In theory. The technology and infrastructure for such a colossal undertaking does not actually exist. But now that scientists from Harvard and Yale have weighed in, the idea is being taken seriously by people who, frankly, should know better.

Yes, know better. Because geoengineering is a terrible idea. Vox did a good rundown of the problems with geoengineering as a solution, but I’ll elaborate on it.

  • Once you start, you can’t stop. Let’s say that we implement this plan and greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated or only moderately abated. That means that we have an ongoing and rising warming influence from greenhouse gases. Countering this means continuing to pump chemicals into our atmosphere. If you stop, then the planet starts warming very quickly as it “catches up”. That kind of sudden warming would be much much worse than a gradual warming, causing sudden shifts in growing patterns, rapid oceans rises and other phenomena we can’t predict.
  • It doesn’t solve many of the other problems associated with CO2 emissions, such as ocean acidification.
  • What happens if there are unpredicted secondary effects? What happens to growing seasons? What happens to weather patterns? The reason global warming is such a concern is that we are already doing a massive geoengineering experiment and we don’t know exactly what the results will be. Why counter that with another vast geoengineering experiment?
  • Probably my biggest concern is that you can’t simply adjust the planetary thermostat so willy-nilly. The potential for disaster looms very large. Up until recently, global cooling was a much bigger concern than global warming. 75,000 years ago, the Toba supervolcano exploded, causing global temperatures to plunge. The human race was almost was wiped out, being reduced to maybe a few thousand individuals. As you’ll see in a future Thursday Throughput, 536 AD may have been the worst year to be alive, thanks to global famines caused by plunging temperatures. The 1815 Tambora eruption resulted in the Year Without A Summer, causing massive food shortages. If a supervolcanic eruption occurred today, it would be a global crisis. If it occurred after we had already polluted the atmosphere with sun-blocking chemicals, it could be a Snowpiercer level catastrophe. Looked at this way, geoengineering is an attempt to balance two environmental catastrophes against each other. This does not strike me as an optimal approach.

For all the press given to these Harvard and Yale scientists — because clearly if Harvard and Yale speak, the world must listen — this is an Ian Malcolm level discussion. We probably can do it; we definitely shouldn’t.

Look, I get the motivation here. Our civilization is powered by fossil fuels. Alternative energy is nice, but passenger planes don’t run on solar panels and cargo ships don’t run on wind. There are huge problems with energy storage and consumption (the “duck curve”) and plans to store alternative energy are absurdly unrealistic. In fact, many of the G-20 countries that signed the Paris Accord are seeing their emissions increase, thanks in large part to ongoing efforts to end nuclear power (ironically, the US is the one country that is seeing a big reduction, thanks in part to moving from coal to natural gas). So I can the desperation.

But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative to decarbonization. However we achieve it, it has to be done. I once wrote out my ideas for a conservative-libertarian plan for dealing with global warming. It’s lost in the mists but is quite similar to climate skeptic Warren Meyer’s transpartisan global warming plan: a carbon tax offset by payroll tax reductions (to which I’d add a corporate tax elimination offset by income tax hikes), eliminate subsidies for borderline tech (to which I’d add increase funding for basic research), revamping of our nuclear regulatory regime and helping Asian countries clean up their energy production.

I also think, at some level, we will need some adaptation. Even if we woke up tomorrow and discovered that cheap nuclear fusion power was suddenly available to everyone, it would take a while for the effect to be felt. The planet is going to continue to warm for a while and should find ways to deal with that — sea walls, migration, whatever — instead of pretending it’s not going to happen.

But geoengineering would be the last solution I would consider, and I would probably take doing nothing over it, to be completely honest. We don’t know nearly enough about our planet to engage in this kind of experiment. And even we did, as I noted above, you are trying to balance two environmental disasters against each other, with catastrophe looming on either end.


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Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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20 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, We Can Block the Sun (Maybe). No, We Shouldn’t.

  1. A carbon tax would be the best approach, unfortunately it would take international cooperation to make it happen and that’s just not going to happen. It would be political suicide for any country to implement the kind of taxation needed to actually solve climate change. On top of that, every country has an incentive to hang back and let other countries bear most of the cost.

    There is no political solution to climate change – ultimately this is just a question of how long it takes for zero-carbon energy to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and how much damage the climate will suffer before that happens. This i why I think there might be a role for some geoengineering – not as a solution, but as a stopgap measure to forestall the worst from happening.

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  2. It also doesn’t even begin to address the underlying problem.

    The problem with global warming isn’t even warming itself, which would be awful enough, but the way our industrial processes affect the global ecosystem.

    On every front, the way we extract resources, refine them, assemble them, use them, and dispose them is putting a tremendous strain on the ecosystem.

    This is the “I’ll just get a liver transplant” response we get from drunks.

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    • That would be the urban view. Out in the countryside, over vast tracks of which you can’t even tell humans are present on the planet, things look different. The encroachment into the environment is almost entirely farms, and the more intensive our agriculture is, the less land it takes to produce the same amount of food.

      But take resource extraction. The world’s largest iron ore mine, Carajas in Brazil, covers about 10 square miles (Google map. It has a metric tonne of iron ore for almost everyone on the planet. It’s about an eighth the size of Akron Ohio or Cincinatti.

      The Kiruna Iron Mine in Sweden, the world’s largest underground iron mine, has produced about a billion tons of iron ore, with 2 billion tons to go, yet it only takes up about 4 square miles and only employs about 400 miners.

      The world’s largest open pit diamond mine is about the size of three golf courses.

      US metal mining only employs about 40,000 miners, and the houses and yards those miners live in probably take up more land area than the mines they work. US coal mining only employs about 70,000 people, about the same as stone mining (somebody has to make all those granite countertops and gravel driveways).

      If you want to know what is straining the ecosystem, it’s not the mines, it’s all those massive coffee plantations that supply Starbucks.

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      • Yes, its the coffee plantations.
        And the palm oil plantations. And the cocoa plantations. and the hardwood logging.

        Its the intensive overfishing, the pumping of the aquifers (hey, just because you can’t see it doesn’t meaning its not happening). Its the draining of chemical runoff into the watershed, the pollution in the air.

        Its the loss of habitat, the damming of the rivers, and on and on and on.

        The damage to the ecosystem is coming from a million different points. Global warming is just one symptom of a systemic problem.

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  3. George Turner: That would be the urban view.Out in the countryside, over vast tracks of which you can’t even tell humans are present on the planet, things look different.The encroachment into the environment is almost entirely farms, and the more intensive our agriculture is, the less land it takes to produce the same amount of food.

    While the encroachment may be more easily spotted in farming areas, its not the only place where human presence is easily detectable. Even over the desert south west there are roads, utility right of ways, pipelines, and a thousand thousand dirt track trails, all with some sort of impact.

    US metal mining only employs about 40,000 miners, and the houses and yards those miners live in probably take up more land area than the mines they work.US coal mining only employs about 70,000 people, about the same as stone mining (somebodyhas to make all those granite countertops and gravel driveways).

    If you want to know what is straining the ecosystem, it’s not the mines, it’s all those massive coffee plantations that supply Starbucks.

    That’s an awfully short sighted view. No one is suggesting the mines themselves are significant contributors to climate change – its what we choose to do with the mining products that is the place where impact exists.

    I love stories like these, because the completely IGNORE evidence from other prior attempts at large scale geoengineering that get to our author’s main points (HERE, and HERE).

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  4. James K: There is no political solution to climate change – ultimately this is just a question of how long it takes for zero-carbon energy to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and how much damage the climate will suffer before that happens. This i why I think there might be a role for some geoengineering – not as a solution, but as a stopgap measure to forestall the worst from happening.

    Unfettered capitalistic economies don’t make rational resource choices. They have landed at a point in time where short term profit boosting reigns supreme as the Raison d’tere and take no concern with accurately pricing common goods like environmental impacts of resource extrication. Thus government intervention is almost assured, and that intervention happens in the political realm, no matter how much we may wish otherwise.

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    • What James might mean by no political social to climate change is that every political soilytion would result in lowering the standard of living. People would need to drive less, live in denser conditions, eat less meat, have fewer stuff, etc. No electorate will stand for this. Any attempts to impose it will result in a revolt like the one going on in France over gas taxes. Good luck getting an electorate to go along with this.

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      • This is a good example:
        “Retreat Is Not An Option”

        The town of Del Mar is being threatened by rising seas, and the only available options range from Awful to Catastrophic-
        (Building buildings higher; Building higher sea walls; Or moving away from the rising water)

        The first two are wildly expensive, but the last is political and financial suicide.

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    • Socialist system are vastly worse. After the Berlin Wall fell we got a good look at socialist environments. I think we’re still paying for cleaning up what we would classify as Superfund regions. The great thing about government intervention is that governments can intervene to make sure every last resource is extracted, whatever the environmental damage and social cost, because government always knows best.

      The advantage of capitalism is that we can travel to socialist countries and cut lucrative deals with their governments to rape their resources without all the red tape and problems we’d encounter here due to property rights and guns and such.

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    • H

      To be clear, I don’t mean that there is nothing governments can or should do about climate change, rather that there’s nothing they will do. So you understand that I have a good handle on the topic, here’s a link to an article I wrote for this blog on externalities, why markets’ can’t deal with them and what government should do about them:
      https://ordinary-times.com/2015/11/23/market-failure-2-externalities-coase-and-effect/

      The optimal solution would be a global carbon tax, once a properly-set tax was implemented the market could take care of the rest. But any serious attempt to curb climate change will lower standards of living in the short term and that will be political suicide for any government that attempts it. And so our governments will ignore reality until it is too late.

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      • And to be clear as well – as a federal scientist who works in an agency that is studying and reporting on the effects of climate change nearly daily I am beyond weary of this idiotic drum beat that “our government” will ignore this until it is too late. Congress MAY ignore it until it is too late, but government isn’t, hasn’t been and won’t. Hell there are laws that tell us to not ignore it, and no Administration has the ability to direct federal civil servants to ignore those laws, no matter how inconvenient they are. So if “government” is going to be blamed, at least do me and my colleagues the solid of blaming at part of government that is actually the problem – and then doing something about hat at the ballot box.

        I would add that while national level elected representatives may choose to put thier heads in the sand, many state and county/parish governments are NOT choosing to do so. They may not be able to deliver a market appropriate carbon tax, but they can and do make electrical power, infrastructure and other decisions and requirements all the time that can drive market forces to respond.

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        • h

          Ah, yes I can see how that would be frustrating. I’m a government employee myself – I’m an economist working for the New Zealand government.

          When I speak of ‘government’ in this context I don’t mean the researchers who are desperately trying to warn everybody of disaster, I mean the politicians who are empowered to actually make the requisite legislative changes, but won’t because if they do they’ll be voted out and replaced by politicians who will tell people that no real sacrifices need be made.

          And this isn’t a US specific problem either – the price of carbon on the European Carbon Market is less than a third of what it would need to be to even start addressing Climate Change, there were recently riots in France because of new petrol taxes, even the Chinese government’s stability depends on keeping its citizens too rich to care about their government’s authoritarianism. Governments retain power by promoting and preserving short-term economic performance, and there’s no way to solve climate change without harming short-term economic performance.

          Given a choice between making significant sacrifices and pretending everything is fine, people will choose to pretend right up until the point the catastrophe is too large to ignore any more.

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  5. Chip Daniels: This is a good example: “Retreat Is Not An Option”

    The town of Del Mar is being threatened by rising seas, and the only available options range from Awful to Catastrophic- (Building buildings higher; Building higher sea walls; Or moving away from the rising water)

    The first two are wildly expensive, but the last is political and financial suicide.

    And so are to stick our heads in the actual sand until the waters literally cover Del Mar? What’s that get us? The most recent national Climate Assessment makes abundantly clear that we spend billions now rebuilding infrastructure along the coast that is already being damaged by these shifts. We will spend billions more as crops have to move more northerly to adjust to temperature changes – ditto fishing in the ocean. Never mind that the last – what 2 or 3 – quadrennial Defense Analyses from DoD have all listed climate change driven regional conflict as the most significant threats they have to plan for.

    And all that eave aside the potential economic upsides – like how there are now almost 10 times the number of people employed in the Solar industry nationally as the Coal mining industry, or that freshly minted wind turbine maintainers out of vo-tech schools can make $70 or $80K a year with no experience because they are in so much demand.

    As to the driving thing – why do we need to drive so much? Because we as nation made literally a million decisions to decentralize our towns and cities, taking our shopping schools and public services out of relatively small and easily walkable enclaves and flinging them to the four winds because we also as a nation decided to ditch effective rail and transit networks in the 1950’s in favor of cars. If amazon is serious about delivering everything we need to live via drone – while I have issues with amazon – it represents a way forward.

    Look, we put men on the moon and in the deepest parts of the ocean in the same decade. There are solutions to many of these challenges as well as the entire crisis that can and will be beneficial for the climate and human economies. We can start implementing them now. But we have to ditch the all or nothing approaches AND stop using government to prop up economic sectors that are failing us in this regard. I don’t want to hand my grandkids keys to a boat to go to the sore in Nebraska. Yet if we keep running around with our hands in the air screaming like the proverbial chicken after the acorn drops on its head, that’s what’s going to happen. And I have no intention of sitting idly by while it does.

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