Plan B for the climate: Time to research the idea?

In Harvard's alumni magazine, a profile of an energetic young professor, David Keith, who argues thoughtfully for researching geoengineering solutions to global warming.

As skeptics continue to question whether global warming is real, and
worldwide efforts to cut greenhouse gases stall, a small but growing
number of scientists believe that humans may need to consider a “Plan B”
that takes control of our climate’s future. Solar geoengineering
encompasses multiple proposals to adjust the planet’s thermostat,
including deflecting sunlight away from the earth with massive space
shields or with extra-bright low-altitude clouds over oceans. One
suggestion, inspired by sulfur-spewing volcanoes, involves modifying a
fleet of jets to spray sulfates into the stratosphere, where they would
combine with water vapor to form aerosols. Dispersed by winds, these
particles would cover the globe with a haze that would reflect roughly 1
percent of solar radiation away from Earth. (The 1991 eruption of Mount
Pinatubo
, which shot some 10 million metric tons of sulfur into the
air, reduced global temperatures about 1 degree F for at least a year.)

Scientists have discussed such strategies for decades, but (until
recently) mostly behind closed doors, in part because they feared that
speaking publicly about geoengineering would undermine efforts to cut
greenhouse-gas emissions. Keith, who is McKay professor of applied
physics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and
professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, strongly advocates
bringing discussion of geoengineering into the open. He says, “We don’t
make good decisions by sweeping things under the rug.”

When I saw David Keith at the American Geophysical Union conference three years ago, he declared that researching "buffering the sun" measures could be accomplished for just $10 million. Climatologists for the most part are not comfortable with geoengineering, for good reason, but still, it's difficult for scientists to argue against research. (Especially when virtually every paper calls for more.more more.) 

Note that Keith is not a zealot about a particular solution. The most cost effective idea — sulphur particles in the stratosphere — could damage the ozone layer, a possibility he wants to test carefully on a small scale. Which he says could be accomplished for perhaps $10 million.  

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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