As the threats of climate change loom nearer, proposals to stop global warming have grown more extreme. One potential solution: dump billions of tons of sulfur into the atmosphere. Many scientists have considered geoengineering, engineering the planet to stop climate change, as a very real possibility.
Traditional Climate Change Policy
When it comes to stopping climate change, there are two basic approaches. We can either reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere or reduce the amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth. Obviously, current policies focus on the first option. However, current policies are not on track to stopping us from suffering the worst effects of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, preventing global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius entails halving our carbon output. Chances are, that’s just not happening.
The History of Geoengineering
Instead of changing our own habits, geoengineering essentially focuses on changing the planet’s processes. Of course, re-engineering the planet is a costly, difficult, and dangerous endeavor. But time is running out if we want to save future generations from the disastrous effects of climate change.
As ridiculous as it sounds, geoengineering efforts are scientifically sound. Scientists observed the potential of geoengineering on the planet’s climate during volcanic eruptions. In the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption, enormous clouds of sulfur decreased global temperatures by as much as one degree Celsius. The enormous cooling effect of the Mount Pinatubo eruption sparked interest in using atmospheric injections to stop global warming.
One of the most popular geo-engineering strategies involves creating massive amounts of sulfur aerosols in the stratosphere. Theoretically, these sulfur aerosols would reflect some sunlight and cool the Earth.
In practice, governments would likely need to coordinate and send planes to drop sulfur or sulfuric acid into the air. A study by the Institute of Physics estimates that such an effort would only cost a few billion dollars a year. However, their calculations use specially designed planes and are based on a multi-year ramp-up approach. Using existing planes, if we want to inject enough aerosols to decrease global temperatures by one degree Celsius in two years, it would cost at least a trillion dollars. Furthermore, high amounts of sulfur in the atmosphere could cause acid rain and many health problems.
Other geoengineering strategies include painting large parts of the world white to increase reflection, creating clouds over the ocean, and creating gigantic parasols to shade parts of the earth. Ultimately, these proposals are extremely expensive, require cross-country government cooperation, and have a variety of potential environmental consequences.
The Future of Climate Change Policy?
Obviously, reducing carbon emissions is a safer choice than geoengineering the Earth. Unfortunately, our planet is in such dire straits that international bodies are actually considering geoengineering strategies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change plans to consider geoengineering in its 2021 report.
As policymakers begin to think about geoengineering, scientists are also ramping up research efforts. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and researchers have already planned efforts to study geoengineering strategies. Researchers at Harvard are also planning on conducting geoengineering experiments in New Mexico.
Hopefully, we won’t have to resort to drastic geoengineering efforts to fix our planet’s climate. Sadly, it seems like scientists and politicians are already planning for the worst. Over the next few decades, we may see our whole planet change to accommodate our carbon-heavy habits.
Austin is an Editor for the Agribusiness section at The Rising and an Economics student at the University of Chicago.