The idea of modifying Earth’s atmosphere to cool the planet, once seen as too risky to seriously consider, is attracting new money and attention.
As the effects of climate change become more devastating, prominent research institutions and government agencies are focusing new money and attention on an idea once dismissed as science fiction: Artificially cooling the planet, in the hopes of buying humanity more time to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
That strategy, called solar climate intervention or solar geoengineering, entails reflecting more of the sun’s energy back into space — abruptly reducing global temperatures in a way that mimics the effects of ash clouds spewed by volcanic eruptions. The idea has been derided as a dangerous and illusory fix, one that would encourage people to keep burning fossil fuels while exposing the planet to unexpected and potentially menacing side effects.
But as global warming continues, producing more destructive hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other disasters, some researchers and policy experts say that concerns about geoengineering should be outweighed by the imperative to better understand it, in case the consequences of climate change become so dire that the world can’t wait for better solutions.
“We’re facing an existential threat, and we need to look at all the options,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School and editor of a book on the technology and its legal implications. “I liken geoengineering to chemotherapy for the planet: If all else is failing, you try it.”
On Wednesday, a nonprofit organization called SilverLining announced $3 million in research grants to Cornell University, the University of Washington, Rutgers University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and others. The work will focus on practical questions, such as how high in the atmosphere to inject sunlight-reflecting aerosols, how to shoot the right size particles into clouds to make them brighter, and the effect on the world’s food supply.
Kelly Wanser, SilverLining’s executive director, said the world is running out of time, and protecting people requires trying to understand the consequences of climate intervention. She said the goal of the work, called the Safe Climate Research Initiative, was “to try to bring the highest-caliber people to look at these questions.”
The research announced Wednesday adds to a growing body of work already underway. In December, Congress gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration $4 million to research the technology. NOAA will also start gathering data that will let it detect whether other countries start using geoengineering secretly. And Australia is funding experiments to determine whether and how the technology can save the Great Barrier Reef.
“Decarbonizing is necessary but going to take 20 years or more,” Chris Sacca, co-founder of Lowercarbon Capital, an investment group that is one of SilverLining’s funders, said in a statement. “If we don’t explore climate interventions like sunlight reflection now, we are surrendering countless lives, species, and ecosystems to heat.”
One way to cool the earth is by injecting aerosols into the upper layer of the atmosphere, where those particles reflect sunlight away from the earth. That process works, according to Douglas MacMartin, a researcher in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University whose team received funding. “We know with 100 percent certainty that we can cool the planet,” Dr. MacMartin said in an interview.