April 14, 2021   10:36am

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Climate Change (on the cheap)

On Climate Change:  How crazy is it getting out there?  (Photo courtesy of The Atlantic)…

If we could turn back time and restore the earth’s temperature back to the way it was in the 18th century (before the creation of the first steam engine) would you want to do it? What if we told you it could be done for around only $100 billion (even cheaper than cutting carbon emissions which would cost $1 trillion yearly)?

Before you answer, first remember what they say: if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is…

That’s the reminder in The Atlantic article “Re-Engineering the Earth” about solving global warming via geo-engineering.  Numerous solutions are proposed.  The cheapest and fastest is through the use of giant zeppelins pumping sulfur dioxide into the air. This sulfur dioxide would act as a shield to the sun’s force, and thus, cool the planet accordingly. And all this can be done in a matter of years– that is, of course, assuming you’re okay with saying goodbye to blue skies and hello to red.

“At sunset on some parts of the planet, these puffs of aerosolized pollutant would glow a dramatic red, like the skies in Blade Runner. During the day, they would shield the planet from the sun’s full force, keeping temperatures cool– as long as the puffing never ceased. Technology that could redden the skies and chill the planet is available right now.”

Now does it seem like a good idea? Below is a breakdown of the solutions the article presents, along with the resulting downsides:

Sulfur aerosol injection: “…fire hose stretching into the sky, like spaghetti, attached to zeppelins hovering 65,000 feet in the air. Factories on the ground would pump 10 kilos of sulfur dioxide up through those hoses every second. And at the top, the hoses would cough a sulfurous pall into the sky…shield[ing] the planet from the sun’s full force, keeping temperatures cool.”

“…might produce acid rain and decimate plant and fish life.”
“…likely to trigger radical shifts in the climate that would hit the globe unevenly. [Africa would grow hotter and drier. Rainfall in India would severely decline].”
“…sulfur aerosols would cool the planet, but we’d risk calamity the moment we stopped pumping: the aerosols would rain down and years’ worth of accumulated carbon would make temperatures surge.”

Cost: $100 billion

Cutting carbon emissions: Old-fashioned way of asking countries to cut down on emissions through treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol and creating carbon caps.

Difficult to get vast international agreements to stick.
Hard to get people to change their habits.

Cost: $1 trillion yearly

Cloud shields: “…permanent fleet of up to 1,500 ships dragging propellers that churn up seawater and spray it high enough for the wind to carry it into the clouds. The spray would add moisture to the clouds and make them whiter and fluffier, and therefore better at bouncing sunlight back harmlessly into space.”

Might be hard to get ship owners to affix spray nozzles to their hulls with magnets.
Would make the skies above the oceans white.
Expensive to keep up.
Cost: $600 million to start, $100 million yearly to keep project going

Space visor: “…20 electromagnetic guns, each more than a mile long and positioned at high altitudes, that would shot Frisbee-size ceramic disks. Each gun would launch 800,000 disks every five minutes-day and night, weekends and holidays-for 10 years. The guns would aim at the gravitational midpoint between the Earth and the sun, so that the disks would hang in space, providing a huge array of sunshades that would block and scatter sunlight and put the Earth in a permanent state of annular eclipse.”
Launch technology necessary doesn’t yet exist.

Cost: Several trillion dollars.

But with all these solutions, there is no effective way to deal with carbon dioxide levels. By going the geo-engineering route instead of cutting carbon emissions, carbon is still filling up our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. “Blocking the sun does nothing to stop the buildup. It is not even like fighting obesity with liposuction: it’s like fighting obesity with a corset, and a diet of lard and doughnuts. Should the corset ever come off, the flab would burst out as if the corset had never been there at all.”

Below are possible solutions for carbon trapping:

Carbon-eating trees: “Engineered to suck carbon more ravenously from the air, and to keep it tied up in thick roots that would decay into topsoil, trapping the carbon…increasing topsoil by just a tenth of an inch over land that support vegetation… [would]… offset all human carbon emissions.”

Vent capturing: “[Create] vented building-size structures that contain grids coated with a chemical solution. As air flows through the vents, the solution would bind to the carbon-dioxide molecules and trap them… The grids would have to be scrubbed chemically to separate the carbon. If chemists could engineer ways to wash the carbon out that didn’t require too much energy… these structures could effectively make our carbon-spewing conveniences carbon-neutral.”

Ocean storage: Spread powdered iron into the ocean, which will cause a massive bloom of plankton. These plankton blooms can suck in huge supplies of carbon. The downside: once the plankton die, they “could emit methane-a greenhouse gas 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide.”

According to Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, rather than choose one method, we should combine many and test them out slowly, as to not put all our eggs in one basket, if you will, risking a catastrophic failure. Or, simply make it more known what’s to come if people don’t start living greener and cutting their carbon emissions.

“A premonition of a future that looks like Blade Runner, with skies dominated by a ruddy smog that’s our only defense against mass flooding and famine, with sunshades in space and a frothy bloom of plankton wreathing the Antarctic, could finally horrify the public into greener living. Perhaps a Prius doesn’t sound so bad, when a zeppelin is the alternative.”

While this Atlantic story goes negative on geo-engineering (and we agree), The Wall Street Journal‘s Jamais Cascio take a  positive stance. Read his article “It’s Time to Cool the Planet” for his analysis.


The Atlantic, “Re-Engineering the Earth,” Graeme Wood, July/August 2009

The Wall Street Journal, “It’s Time To Cool the Planet,” Jamais Cascio, June 15, 2009

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