Should Scientists Seed the Sky With Chemicals?

Researchers are increasingly envisioning a future in which geoengineering is a part of responding to climate change.

Not long ago, geoengineering was a verboten topic. It’s the sort of idea that dips deep enough into the wells of human ambition and hubris that it seems too dangerous to even consider. In the words of a Woodrow Wilson Center report, geoengineering “involves intentional, large-scale interventions in the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, soils or living systems to influence the planet’s climate”—in other words, a man-made fix to the man-made problem of climate change. In its most extreme forms, geoengineering could mean seeding the sky with chemicals to deflect sunlight away from Earth and change the sky’s color from blue to white. Or it could mean blocking solar energy by sending reflectors into orbit that, in certain configurations, would banish the Milky Way from the night sky. It's easy to see why such scenarios would make scientists nervous.

Yet there is a growing belief in the Washington think-tank world that although geoengineering is not an optimal solution to climate change, it may be a necessary one. In the past couple of months, both the Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center have released reports that suggest further research into geoengineering. Both organizations emphasize that other fixes to climate change—mitigation through energy innovation and adaptation to harsher conditions—are preferable, but they conclude that geoengineering might be the best option to deal with the extreme threats posed by climate change to human living conditions.

One the first reports on geoengineering, published in 1965, proposed it as a climate solution without imagining that decreasing coal or oil use might be a more reasonable approach. Since that era, though, the magnitude of climate change and the limits of human ingenuity have become clear. The Wilson Center cautions that faith in geoengineering may be misplaced because "we may know too little about the Earth's geophysical and ecological systems to be confident we can engineer the climate on a planetary scale."

The Wilson Center favors research into less risky forms of geoengineering, like siphoning carbon out of the atmosphere and storing its elsewhere. A few similar techniques—better soil management and reforestation—double as mitigation strategies already under investigation by climate researchers. The Bipartisan Policy Center, meanwhile, is more gung-ho about the more radical forms of geoengineering, the “solar radiation management” strategies that include seeding the sky with chemicals, though they emphasize that mitigating risk is a priority.

The appeal of geoengineering is obvious: It’d be easy compared to the effort needed to wean the country off coal and oil altogether. That’s one reason a slew of conservative think thanks, from the American Enterprise Institute to the Heartland Institute, have supported it for years. But it should be a last-ditch resort. The scary part is that climate change could get bad enough to warrant such measures. Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency reported that the world has just five years left to avoid catastrophic climate change. It’s still possible to turn away from a future where serious people are advocating for a white-sky world. But there’s not much time left.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user dcysurfer/Dave Young

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