Is Solar Geoengineering Really the Answer?

Informative Article


A sci-fi scene that may become a reality. Climate change has taken its toll and some believe that cooling the planet down through solar geoengineering is the solution.


by Akshitha Sahu

It’s no secret that our planet is suffering because of our poor choices. It’s also not a secret that carbon emissions are one of the greatest sources of air pollution. If there is anything most can agree on, it’s that these unnatural carbon emissions are our fault. Like any other problem, the one at hand must also have a solution. Several believe that geoengineering Planet Earth is that solution. At this point, a choice has to be made. This decision is not one that daunts mankind today but one that’s been around since the 1960s. However, it is high time that we either employ this solution, or we rush to find another one. The Atlantic says that 2055 may hold the dystopian world we fear. Infants and the elderly may die because of regular heatwaves and food shortages will become commonplace. Today, the greatest fight we face is against a monster that we’ve created by ourselves.


Here is where the Trilemma is presented. To some solar geoengineering is how we will fix this mess, and to others, solar geoengineering just isn’t the fix we need, yet can there be a neutral path that can satisfy both concerns? Those who stand neutral believe that there simply needs to be more research done before we can make a decision.


Solar geoengineering is the way forward.


As explained in an article by Anthropocene, solar geoengineering is a method that will essentially cool down the atmosphere and reverse the effect carbon emissions have had on this planet. This type of geoengineering relies on material, such as reflective buildings and crops, sulfate aerosols, and giant mirrors, among others, to reflect a portion of the sun’s rays back into space, says YaleEnvironment360.


Solar geoengineering is one among many when it comes to decreasing the concentration of CO2 in the air. According to the Anthropocene, a Swiss company has succeeded in straining CO2 directly from the air and utilizing it in fertilizers. However, having more than one solution has usually proven more efficient.


A major solution is releasing sulfate aerosols into the air. According to The Atlantic, with this solution, supporters hope to mimic the natural effect that volcanoes have after large eruptions. After a massive eruption, a volcano releases waves of particles into the air, causing a portion of the sunlight’s path to be obstructed from the surface of the earth. The sunlight generates heat in the atmosphere, reducing the amount of heat from sunlight effectively cools the temperature. To mimic this, the sulfate aerosols that are released into the sky will create an artificial cloud, which seen from earth, will make the sky seem dimmer.


Though the greater part of the proposals involve aerosols, there are other plans that are a part of this movement. An important part of this equation is the role of clouds. Cirrus clouds have a way of trapping heat into the earth’s atmosphere, and because of this, it’s imperative that our actions reflect this. These clouds, however, are not to be confused with the sulfate aerosols in the air.


According to YaleEnvironment360 one possible solution is spraying sea salt into clouds to add a luster to them. This can effectively reflect sunlight back into space without warming the atmosphere. Another method is the thinning of clouds in order to regulate the warming effect that cirrus clouds have on the earth.


All of these solutions have studies dedicated to them alone, and to overlook one of these as a minor effort would prove to be a mistake. In theory, these plans have a sound structure, and we can assume to an extent that this can only get better.


This solution brings more harm than prosperity.


While the plan of solar engineering has its grandeur, there are steps to the process that have not been filled in. The fact that starting solar geoengineering is not as subtle or simple as it is to stop must be an integral part of the argument. Yale School of the Environment also explains that geoengineering can affect animal life throughout the planet and put them all in harm’s way.


Releasing sulfate particles may seem perfect in theory, but the truth is that they do not resemble volcanic eruptions in any greatly substantial way, as highlighted in the Smithsonian Magazine. According to a science letter on Nature Climate Change, solar geoengineering can also reduce precipitation while returning to average surface temperatures.


While planning the movement, we come across several questions that move the cornerstones of solar geoengineering. One such question refers to the amount of aerosols that should be poured into the atmosphere. While people compare the process of releasing aerosols into the air to volcanic eruptions, Douglas MacMartin, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at Cornell University, says that, "an eruption's not the same as a continual emission of sulfur dioxide.”


The Smithsonian Magazine also explains that there is a lot we don’t know. There is evidence that releasing aerosols into the air can disrupt weather patterns and start a slew of unneeded floods and droughts. This was also reinforced in a scientific letter for the Nature Climate Change.

Another point to consider is the effect that dimming sunlight can have on life on earth. According to a study by the Yale School of the Environment, starting or ending solar geoengineering suddenly could cause adverse effects to animals and plants alike. If in the process of trying to cool our planet down, we lose the means to continue geoengineering or have reason to stop geoengineering abruptly, data analysis, by Yale scientists, shows that the earth would likely warm 10 times faster.


The effects would be preposterous and would leave us further behind than we are now. It almost seems to be common sense that if plants were to get less sunlight, they wouldn’t grow in the same way. Plants, being at the bottom of the food chain, have a massive impact on the whole food web, which we are a part of. For those against solar engineering, it’s clear that the negative outcomes are the ones that will hold more value in the end.


Neutral:


Global warming has become a phrase that we learn about along with our rhyming words. our planet would shed tears if it could. With such a problem, there may be a solution. The reduction of carbon emissions being the most basic of all. Some simple things we hear while talking about ridding climate change includes walking to nearby places rather than taking a car.


However, these may have been feasible solutions if we had time. Time is the one resource we do not have the luxury of using right now. We face one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever dealt. We are nowhere near the beginning of this issue, but in some ways, this is still the start of reformation.


There’s no doubt that this form of geoengineering may finally make our planet into the futuristic version we imagine. From the controversy, we can see that there is a lot that remains untested. Many of the arguments that take place are because of the fact that solar geoengineering just hasn’t been run through enough hoops yet.


Some may argue that the risk of the unknown is one worth taking because the alternative would be to sit idle. Others argue with the statement that solar geoengineering is not worth the trouble it will cause to other parts of our world. The neutral stance in this argument may be viewed as passive, but the point that is brought to attention is the fact that there is a lot we don’t know. As the Smithsonian Magazine explains, a methodical approach to this problem may be better than acting on our last resort.


The simple action may be that we have to test these techniques on smaller scales. While simulations may tell us what to expect, there may still be a lot that is left untested. There are those of us who have the ability to test solar engineering and to make sure that it is indeed a feasible and safe option, the rest of us must not forget the troubles that may lay ahead. The truth has never been more clear: we do not know what the future will present, but we can still try our best to be prepared.