As we teeter on the brink of irreversible climate change, researchers are developing novel ideas to save us. Several of their proposals involve "solar dimming," the technological equivalent of putting a dimmer switch on the sun.
Dimming the sun is likely to upset farmers, sunbathers, and the vacation industry, but it should concern all of us. It's more of what got us into this fix in the first place: the impulse to solve the environmental problems by modifying nature rather than human behavior.
Geoengineering ideas range from sensible steps like planting trees to wild-sounding schemes to manipulate and control nature. Solar dimming is one of them. Like many of the others, it risks severe unintended consequences, so in past years, it was taboo to talk seriously about these ideas.
But geoengineers argued their research should continue in case more conventional solutions to climate change don't work. We aren’t there yet, but we’re getting closer as countries underperform on their promises to eliminate pollution from fossil fuels. Policymakers take geoengineering more seriously now in case the world needs a "Plan B."
To be clear, the solution to climate change and many other problems today is not to manipulate nature; it’s to cooperate with it. The correct answer to global warming has always been to stop using fossil fuels.
For that reason, we should dedicate our limited time and research dollars to perfecting technologies that enable the world to use clean energy. They include better batteries, sustainable substitutes for rare earth minerals, economical ways to recycle retired renewable-energy equipment, continued improvements in solar-cell and wind turbine efficiency, and ways to make the world's expanding electric infrastructure safe from terrorism, sabotage, cyberattack, horrible weather, cascading power outages, and other risks. Electric system security is critical because the world is moving toward economies run by electricity generated with zero-carbon renewable resources.
Nevertheless, three American researchers have announced a new geoengineering approach: using Moon dust to dim sunlight. Someone or something stationed on the Moon would shoot tons of dust into space every week. The researchers estimate 11 tons of Moondust annually would make the Earth's surface 2 percent dimmer.
The Moondust solution joins several other solar-dimming ideas. For example:
- In 2012, Scottish researchers suggested blowing up an asteroid to create a dust cloud between the Sun and Earth.
- In 1989, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed placing a thin, 1,250-mile glass shield between the Sun and Earth.
- In 2006, astronomer Roger Angel explored sending millions of small umbrella-like shields into the sky.
- Last year, scientists at MIT proposed deploying a raft of bubbles in space to reflect the sun. They calculated a raft the size of the fifth biggest country on Earth, Brazil, should be enough to keep global warming under control.
Regulating cow burps
Another line of inquiry involves gastrointestinal engineering, more specifically the methane produced when cows and other ruminants burp or flatulate. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas, shorter lived but much more efficient than carbon dioxide at absorbing heat. Cattle are global agriculture's most significant source of gas.
An American fast-food chain frequently airs a television commercial that ends with a basso profundo announcer declaring, "We've got the beef!" The company is betting, probably safely, that most Americans would not forgo hamburgers and steaks. That has inspired research on switching cow diets to less gassy feed.
Fortunately for cows, their emissions are part of the Earth's vital carbon cycle as well as nature's resourceful circular economy. Cows eat grass, grass gives them gas, and their burps introduce it to the atmosphere. But after a decade or so, the methane turns to carbon dioxide, which vegetation absorbs to build leaves and stems, giving cows fresh food, and so on.
The real problem is methane from burning oil, coal, and natural gas. The methane and carbon dioxide in fossil fuels have been sequestered underground and kept out of the carbon cycle for millions of years. When we extract and burn coal, oil, or natural gas, they release more carbon dioxide and methane than the carbon cycle can handle. The excess lingers in the atmosphere like a wool blanket enveloping the Earth.
So, cows aren't' the climate villains we've made them out to be, and governments don't have to worry about regulating flatulence. They do have to worry, however, about regulating the pollution from the dirty fuels that provide 80 percent of the world’s energy today.
The Faustian bargain
Regarding research priorities, there has been plenty of study about climate change. Science has become more detailed and certain in the last 30 years. The holdups on doing something about it have been the inertia of the fossil-fuel economy and the political power of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries. They've used cover-ups, outright lies, intensive lobbying, and generous campaign contributions to hide climate science, then to discredit it, and now to make good-looking commitments that are actually greenwashing.
We are forced to watch extreme weather disasters grow deadlier and costlier while governments provide trillions of dollars in annual subsidies to fossil-energy producers and consumers, and the world's banks keep lending the industry money to build pipelines and other infrastructure that will be stranded when the world wakes up.
So, another solution to climate change and many other problems is to improve the relationship between scientists and policymakers. Oceanographer Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who led the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) during the Obama administration, calls for a new contract between science and society. Expanding on Dr. Lubchenko's vision, the contract would make these commitments:
First, the world's policy and science communities would work together more closely to assess and anticipate society's most pressing problems.
Second, policymakers would put more resources into applied research on solutions that contribute to an ecologically sound, economically feasible, and socially just world.
Third, complying with their fiduciary duty to serve the best interests of investors and shareholders, money managers and corporations would consider the significant economic risks of investing in fossil fuels and the enormous opportunities in the world's transition to clean energy.
The current “contract” is a Faustian bargain between political leaders and the captains of fossil energy industries. We should replace it with a social contract that achieves productive harmony between humanity and the natural world.