Changing the Weather

Here’s an idea for responding to climate change which I suspect is a long way away from yielding practical responses but which I suspect we should keep our eyes on. Science has a story on geoengineering:

Top climate scientists have cautiously endorsed the need to study schemes to reverse global warming that involve directly tinkering with Earth’s climate. Their position on geoengineering, which will likely be controversial, was staked out at an invitation-only meeting that ended here today. It’s based on a growing concern about the rapid pace of global change and continued anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

“In this room, we’ve reached a remarkable consensus that there should be research on this,” said climate modeler Chris Bretherton of the University of Washington, Seattle, during a morning session today. Phil Rasch, a modeler with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, underscored the point. “We’re not saying that there should be geoengineering, we’re saying there should be research regarding geoengineering.” No formal statement was released at the meeting, which was organized by Harvard University and the University of Calgary, but few of the 50 scientists objected to the idea.

The field of geoengineering has long been big on ideas but short on respect. Some of the approaches that researchers have dreamed up include launching fleets of space-based shades to dim the sunlight hitting Earth or altering the albedo of the ocean with light-colored reflectors. Perhaps the best-known idea is to pump aerosols into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes. But there’s been scant support from mainstream scientists, many of whom fear that even mentioning the g-word could derail discussion of carbon-emissions cuts. Others worry that technological tinkering might backfire. “I just accepted on faith as an environmental scientist that this had to be a bad idea,” said Harvard’s Scot Martin, who said he was reluctantly coming around.

Finding solutions to complex problems often does involve looking in a variety of directions, including those which initially do not appear the most promising. Bradford Plumer reviews some of the potential obstacles to this approach:

The best overviews I’ve seen on this issue are this Boston Globe article and this Wilson Quarterly piece. But just to pile on: It’s worth noting that no one has yet come up with an even halfway plausible geo-engineering plan. The most promising idea to date—injecting sulfuric dust into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight—suffered a blow after two University of Colorado scientists pointed out that it could wreak havoc on global rainfall patterns. More research would be fantastic, but it’d be insane for the world to sit around and wait for geo-engineering to save us, only to discover that, 20 years hence, none of these wacky plans have made it past the bong-cloud stage, and we’re still on our present, carbon-belching energy path.

There’s also the question of who would control the weather. Cloud-seeding in the United States has led to all sorts of lawsuits from farmers complaining about stolen rain. Chinese cities experimenting with this stuff have been warring over “cloud theft.” The U.S. Air Force has drafted a report, “Weather as a Force Multiplier,” discussing ways to use weather-modification as a weapon. If someone does come up with a way to cool the earth—say, giant space mirrors—there would be all sorts of tricky debates about who decides how it’s used. It’s hard to imagine that the international talks over that would be any less difficult than reaching an agreement on reducing carbon emissions.

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