In the case of runaway climate change, can we hack the planet? A team of Harvard scientists is about to embark on a high-flying journey to find out. Aided by a balloon, next year they will sprinkle small quantities of tiny molecules into the stratosphere over Arizona in order to test humanity’s last resort in a rapidly warming world – solar geoengineering.
If the greenhouse effect, which keeps the Earth warm enough to be habitable, ends up going off balance, a radical solution may have to be found. And nothing could be as radical as deflecting part of the Sun’s electromagnetic radiation. Large volcanic eruptions work precisely that way, but the sulphate aerosols they spew out have the nasty side effect of destroying the ozone layer. ‘The quest is for a better molecule,’ says Harvard chemistry professor Frank Keutsch.
The team will start spraying the sky with a well-known substance – water. Then, they will proceed with molecules that are complete strangers to the atmosphere, such as calcium carbonate (which could also help heal the ozone layer), titanium, and even diamond dust.
So, are we going to solve our problems with carbon dioxide by using pure carbon? Unfortunately, geoengineering is just a finger in the dam. It can’t be a replacement for serious and committed actions to steer away from climate-damaging fossil fuels. The Arctic, our best and biggest thermometer, reported record-high temperatures in December and a record-low ice sheet in March. Then there’s the political climate, after a sudden energy policy shift in the world’s biggest economy. Hacking the planet can only be a choice of last resort.
Geoengineering ideas, often halfway between sci-fi and impracticability, have been circulating for years, such as building giant geostationary umbrellas in space, painting all of the world’s roofs in reflective white, or ‘fertilising’ oceans with iron particles in order to promote CO2-feeding phytoplankton. Needless to say, a small and controlled test such as Harvard’s is welcome. But if we are ever to choose geoengineering (and let’s hope we never reach that level of desperation), any decision must be made by the United Nations. You don’t want just anybody to meddle with the planet.
This was published in the June 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.