For at least forty years, scientists and policy makers have considered addressing climate related issues by means of climate engineering, or as it more commonly referred to, geoengineering. A prime example is found in a story published in Newsweek that proposed (albeit with reservations) to use geoengineering to fix a climatic “problem”:
Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the Arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve. [emphasis added]
That quote comes, of course, from the now infamous 1975 Newsweek story about the dangers of global cooling. Nowadays, melting the Artic ice cap is considered a problem in need of a solution, not a solution to fix the problem.
More recently, other ridiculous geoengineering ideas have been proposed, such as shooting millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere or taking similar actions to put reflective particles in the atmosphere to block some sunlight.
While such proposals are frightfully absurd, it appears cooler heads are beginning to prevail on ideas about how to “fix” global warming. According to a new report by the U.S. Academies of Science, Engineering, Medicine, and National Research :
Carbon dioxide removal and albedo-modification techniques have been grouped up until now under the common term “geoengineering,” but they vary widely with respect to environmental risks, socio-economic impacts, cost, and research needs. Carbon dioxide removal addresses the root cause of climate change — high concentrations of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere — and generally have well-understood benefits and risks, but current technologies would take decades to achieve moderate results and be cost-prohibitive at scales large enough to have a sizeable impact. By contrast, albedo-modification techniques would only temporarily mask the warming effect caused by high CO2 concentrations, and present serious known and possible unknown environmental, social, and political risks, including the possibility of being deployed unilaterally.
These differences led the committee to evaluate the two types of approaches separately in companion reports, a distinction it hopes carries over to future scientific and policy discussions. In addition, the committee believes that these approaches are more accurately described as “climate intervention” strategies — purposeful actions intended to curb the negative impacts of climate change — rather than engineering strategies that imply precise control over the climate.
Considering that we don’t even have unquestionably accurate means of recording global temperatures it’s not much of an admission to point out we don’t have engineering strategies that can lead to “precise control over the climate.” Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to finally see some long-overdue epistemic humility on the issue of climate change. While it may not be much, at least people are realizing that attempting to destroy the planet in order to save it might not be the best long-term solution.