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5 April 2017

Could Cooling the Planet Really Save it From Global Warming?

There are a few different science fiction narratives which dealt with the idea of artificially cooling the Earth. It’s been an evil plot (G.I. Joe), a gag (Futurama) and even a set-up for a future dystopia (Snowpiercer). Now, it may well be our best hope of bringing our planet back from the brink of total catastrophe. With climate change initiatives moving in the wrong direction, and many experts saying that it would be too little too late even if they weren’t, some are beginning to examine more drastic countermeasures – like geoengineering.

Last month, at a summit in Washington, a group of experts discussed a number of different methods of combating climate change, and one of them was to fire aerosol canisters into the atmosphere and spray saline solutions over white clouds. Both of these would theoretically have the effect of reflecting solar radiation back out into space, thus reducing global warming and actually cooling the planet.

It’s far from a pipe dream, the technology to do this already exists, it’s just a matter of refitting it to the task, assessing the potential risks, counting the costs and convincing global political powers that this needs to happen. Given recent political developments, that last thing might be the largest, most cumbersome obstacle, other than some scientists warning that the implementation of geoengineering might actually start a nuclear war.

The question that really needs to be asked is this – are the potential drawbacks of geoengineering worse than the prospect of a warmer world with unpredictable weather and higher sea levels? Some still believe that through renewable energy initiatives, the warming of the planet could be reversed, but even if that’s the case, not even a fraction of the necessary work is being done, and some of the largest, wealthiest nations in the world are actually acting as a barrier to progress.

The other thing that highlights geoengineering is that it can actually be done fairly cheaply. The resources necessary to do it properly aren’t that expensive, nor is the implementation process. It’s basically a case of loading aircraft with aerosols and then launching them from a high altitude. Global costs have been estimated at $5 billion a year. America could handle that relatively comfortably by themselves.

The biggest concern it raises is that it acts as an almost direct antithesis to global warming – the planet gets colder, the weather changes. There’s a chance that rains may become less frequent in countries which rely on them, and regions with regions near the poles may find some human settlements becoming almost too cold to even be liveable during the winter. Once again though, we simply don’t know, it’s a huge leap of faith.

There’s too much debate surrounding geoengineering at this stage, but a more focuses research agenda has been put into motion, and more summits and conferences are going to start examining its potential. Many have argued that we as a species have no right to tamper with nature in this way, but the fact remains that it’s our tampering that placed us in this dire situation. Nature will recover from our actions, but if something isn’t done soon, we won’t. 

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.