Will Humans Re-Engineer The Atmosphere?

by | Sep 16, 2016

Science and engineering offer few quick and assured solutions when it comes to stopping human-driven climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

Johan Rockström and his coauthors, a collection of rock star scientists from five different countries, published a paper in “Earth’s Future,” a journal of the prestigious American Geophysical Union.

The paper titled, “The World’s Biggest Gamble,” argues that the Paris Climate Accord misses the mark — by a lot — the equivalent of the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed every year by all of the global oceans combined.

That is all 140 million square miles of global ocean.

They opine that even if humans were to achieve zero carbon emissions, the climate will continue to change.

Rockstrom argues the world needs to get to negative carbon emissions, removing a great deal more carbon than we produce every year to even approach modest stabilization of climate. And negative emissions has to happen in the near future: tens of years not centuries.

Renewable Energy

Getting to mostly renewable energy over the next two decades seems improbable if not impossible.

Through the first nine months of 2016, the world has consumed about 340 quadrillion BTUs of energy.

Of the total energy consumed, only 8 quadrillion BTUs, or roughly 3 percent came from solar, wind and geothermal sources.  Whereas, the burning of fossil fuels accounted for 298 quadrillion BTUs or 88 percent of the world’s energy production.

So, given the disparity between the two, how on Earth can hydrocarbons be replaced by solar and wind on Earth in the next decade or two?

How can such a swap be technically and politically done, let alone arriving at a negative carbon balance to actually hold off climate change?

Today, we can barely sequester but a fraction of the carbon dioxide necessary to achieve zero carbon emissions, let alone negative carbon emissions.

A Solution?

One solution posed by multiple Nobel Laureates would be to geoengineer the atmosphere to quickly cool the climate down by using injected aerosols.

However, the whole release of sulfur into the upper atmosphere may create as many problems as it solves.

Geoengineering Earth

Geoengineering Earth on such a large scale has never been a popular topic with scientists.

An excellent TED talk by David Keith discusses the idea including ethical problems with this last ditch effort.

The National Academy of Science already concludes that humans have “re-plumbed” the rest of the hydrologic cycle so geoengineering the atmosphere will just complete the program — for better or worse.

Whether we like the idea or not, geoengineering the atmosphere may have to be taken seriously by scientists, governments and policy makers sooner rather than later, given the nature of the problem.

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