Ahead of the Curve: Living With Geoengineering – Part 1

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

There was more doom and gloom in climate change news last month. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report saying that our current course will produce catastrophic results across the planet, including substantial sea level rise, by 2040. Another study focused on the warming that has already occurred in the earth’s oceans and found quite a bit more than anticipated. This means it will be far more difficult than we thought to mitigate additional warming in the coming years.

If all that is too dull for you, here’s another item to grab your attention: “Heat and Drought Could Threaten World Beer Supply.” Yikes! It’s time to get serious.

Plan A for “getting serious” is the same one we’ve been hearing about for the past fifty years. It starts with acknowledging that human activity is a primary cause of the current warming trend, as we’re the ones responsible for emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and those emissions trap the sun’s heat. So what we need to do is reduce those emissions and return to the preindustrial conditions in which heat could more freely escape into space.

How much do we need to reduce them? According to the IPCC, to prevent catastrophic warming symptoms, we need to cut the planet’s total emissions by 45 percent by 2030. By 2050, we’ll need to reduce emissions to zero.

I hate to go way out on a limb, but here is a small prediction: it ain’t happening. In fact, despite all the handwringing, all the politician photo-ops, and all the lamentation from the pope that everyone should do without air conditioning, global greenhouse gas emissions are still going up—not down. There was a three-year plateau from 2014-2016, but then they shot up another 2 percent in 2017.

Don’t just smugly point your finger at Donald Trump—US emissions were down 0.5 percent last year. They rose globally because of India, China, and growth in developing nations. Africa, for example, is at long last enjoying steady economic growth. That’s great for them, but not for the planet as a whole. The idea that the world will somehow reverse this upward trend and slash total emissions nearly in half in the next eleven years is ludicrous.

Even if we could achieve such a reduction, the reduction in the quality of billions of lives would be massive. The rich will be able to get by OK—they always do. The rest of us, especially the poorest among us, will take it on the chin. Simple things—cars, appliances—would become luxuries, and today’s luxuries would vanish. A few years ago the McKinsey consulting firm ran some numbers and concluded that it would cost $1 trillion to cut in half the rate of growth in emissions in India alone—not cutting in half India’s total emissions, just cutting the rate of growth in those emissions. Cutting worldwide emissions by 45 percent in the next eleven years is a pipe dream.

What not everyone realizes is that a Plan B for halting global warming does exist. It would almost certainly work, and it would almost certainly be orders of magnitude cheaper than trying to cut emissions in half. It also has some serious downsides. But—you read it here first—it’s going to happen. What humanists should be thinking hard about now is not how to stop it, but how to steer this bus in the right direction, maximizing the benefits while minimizing the risks.

The gist of the idea is simple: create a cooling effect strong enough to offset the greenhouse gas warming effect. Scientist and engineers already have a good idea  how to do this. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines and material ejected from it cooled global temperatures by about half a degree Celsius for the next few years—that’s a full quarter of what we need to avoid catastrophe. Other volcanoes have had an even more dramatic effect. The 1783 Lakagígar eruption in Iceland spewed enough sunlight-reflecting material into the atmosphere to result in, among other things, the freezing of the Mississippi River at New Orleans and ice floes in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are far better reflective materials we can put in the atmosphere than the random emissions of volcanoes. Current thinking holds that sulfate aerosols are the best bet. The mechanics of how to get sufficient materials up there have been worked out, and the cost is astonishingly small. Something on the order of $8 billion a year may suffice.

Jeff Bezos could do this by himself. So could any number of individual countries, without missing a beat.

So what’s holding us back? Quite a few things, aside from general inertia. All of which you can read about next week.