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Could we get used to a white sky?

skyscrapers and a white sky
Unsplash - Karsten Wingert

I read or peruse hundreds of articles and studies about climate change and the environment each month for our environmental newsfeed. They are a compilation of scientific studies, editorial comment, political harangues and ingenious invention. By themselves each article tackles a component of the climate change drama. Taken together their tone and tenor create a narrative. If you step back far enough and look at them all at once you can see it. There have been three distinct narratives since the year 2005.

The third one is truly frightening: the white sky.

wind turbine and solar energy

Narrative one: Renewable energy will save us - 2005 to 2015

During the first decade of the 21st century momentum was building. More and more people understood that climate change was real, caused by humans and potentially able to destroy us. However, we convinced ourselves that we have the technology and the time necessary to turn the tide. There were hundreds of articles on solar systems, electric cars, and wind turbines.

It was all still pretty primitive – a lot of talk, but most people figured that somebody will work it out by the year 2100 – not to worry.

Along with talk of warming temperatures a well-financed disinformation campaign driven by the fossil fuel giants blunted the momentum to get ahead of, or at least catch up with, the problem we were causing. They nurtured skepticism about climate change and poured millions into lobbying. Oil companies ruled the roost, and we are reminded that profit is still king.

Soon climate change became a political football embraced by one cultural tribe and shunned by the other. Any comprehensive political solution appeared unlikely.

Between 2000 and 2009 humans emitted over 284 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere – the most in history. Those 10 years may have cost us the ballgame.

Narrative two: Carbon capture and sequestration will be necessary to preserve the environment. 2015 to 2020

From 2015 to 2020 the narrative slowly changed. New environmental studies indicated that environmental collapse was advancing more rapidly than anticipated. Science made it clear we weren’t moving fast enough. We told them not to be so negative, and were numbed into complacency by the drop in prices of renewable energy and the production of electric buses and cars. If we keep building enough wind turbines, install enough solar panels and plant enough trees things will be fine.

Meanwhile, we elected a president who thought it is all a hoax. He was married to coal and oil and did everything is his power to kill renewables and advance fossil fuels. He didn’t just set back our chances he buried them.

Then in 2018 a bomb shell is dropped on the world in the form of a study from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) proclaiming that the world has just 12 years left to get the job done. What happened to 2100? No other article got as much attention. It is still referred to daily. By 2030 the tipping point will be passed, and the game could be lost. Not only did it cause a stir, it also changed the entire direction of the climate change narrative.

Scientists began suggesting that renewable energy wouldn’t be enough. We can’t just stop putting carbon into the atmosphere. There is already too much up there, and our emissions continue to increase. We have to start taking it out of the air and water.

As the decade advanced more and more articles about carbon capture and sequestration appeared in the media. Planting trees won’t get the whole job done. Scientists conjure up solutions from mechanical devices, to rock dust on farmland, to kelp fields in the oceans. It seems we can’t stop putting it into the air so we better start getting serious about taking it out.

The United Nations and the Paris Agreement laid out a course of action, organized the world around a strategy and set targets to aim at. The only problem is that it isn’t working. The 1.5 degree (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) limit is going to be exceeded. As the Washington Post pointed out in a recent article parts of the United States and the world at large are already experiencing a 2 degree (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in temperature.

Still the world drags its feet about climate collapse.

Humans emitted 347 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere between 2010 and 2019.

white sky above the clouds

Narrative Three: The White Sky: Solar geoengineering is our last chance.

Scientists seem eerily unnerved by the rapidly advancing climate and the slow pace of the world efforts to cope. Ever more frequently their work indicates that even capture and sequestration may come too late to avoid global disaster. We need much more time than we have.

Despite the mild CO2 downturn due to a pandemic, carbon emissions are increasing faster than ever. By December of 2020 we already have the highest carbon emissions in history. More and more carbon is being emitted into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Australia is developing a super-sized coal mine to feed the energy appetite of India, a country in the crosshairs of climate change. China is proceeding with the construction of 460 new coal plants and Indonesia 179.

The United Nations has issued a warning that we have to do more, much more. In reality the type of international action required to save ourselves appears nearly impossible.

It isn’t difficult today to find an article suggesting a 4 degree (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) scenario by 2100. That, of course, would be Armageddon. For many scientists the battle seems to be lost. Some suggest it is time to prepare the ultimate weapon - Solar Geoengineering.

Solar geoengineering: also referred to as solar radiation management—describes a set of proposed approaches to reflect sunlight to rapidly cool the Earth.

solar geoengineering schematic

Solar geoengineering is a relatively simple and affordable concept. “The two main approaches being researched are stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) and marine cloud brightening (MCB). The first—stratospheric aerosol injection, or SAI—would involve injecting tiny reflecting particles, known as aerosols, into the upper atmosphere to cool the planet. The second—marine cloud brightening, or MCB—would use sea salt to stimulate cloud formation over the ocean, which would also help reflect sunlight in the region.”

Remember, solar geoengineering does nothing to solve the core problem – CO2 in the atmosphere. It just buys us time.

However, solar geoengineering is like playing with nitro glycerin. It can easily blow up in our faces. In her book "Under a White Sky", Elizabeth Kolbert quotes a scientist who calls the solar the solar geoengineering strategy both unbelievably dangerous and inevitable. We may not be able to control the process nor the results.

The risks are numerous and include potential effects on the environment, energy patterns, and the human quality of life. One result would be turning our blue sky - white. In addition, there would be political, ethical, and moral issues raised to which we may not have answers. There are dozens of lists of specific consequences to solar geoengineering that can run into the hundreds. Here is one.

A frightening component to the geoengineering option is that almost any country of size could start tinkering with it. The money and technology necessary to send huge jets filled with aerosols into the sky is well within the reach of many nations. We are at risk of having a rogue nation take action on its own without proper planning and execution. What is required is extensive global cooperation.

It’s too early in the game to think that solar geoengineering is our only way out. On the other hand, the science community is beginning to suggest a closer look at just that approach. As I was writing this post I received the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in my mailbox. The third article in the batch was intitled “$100 million geoengineering project proposed, to dim the sun.” The National Academies of Science (NAS) is recommending 100 to 200 million dollars over five years to study the feasibility and risk from solar geoengineering. They reference the “worryingly slow progress” on climate change as their motivation to call for such action. While they admit it is extremely risky and are not suggesting we actually try it out, they are suggesting that it is time to start the study of such procedures.

First, we focused on stopping greenhouse gases from getting into the sky. Then we pondered how to get them out of the sky. Now we are plotting a strategy to stop the sun’s rays from getting to the surface of the earth because we are not doing the first two fast enough. Maybe solar geoengineering can buy the time we need to squelch emissions and capture all the carbon. The process start-to-finish could take decades.

There isn’t anything after solar geoengineering. Whether such a strategy can buy enough time for us to drain the CO2 from the atmosphere without destructive environmental and societal consequences is completely unknown.

the planet earth
unsplash - NASA

Can we avoid solar geoengineering?

Let’s be candid. The longer we wait the more difficult and extreme the solutions get. Humans always take it to the limit. Until fire, storms, water surges and excessive heat complicate their lives they are unlikely to demand change. This could be our demise. We have to act before multiple disasters unravel the fabric of the world economy and truncate the financial resources required to fix our problem.

So, the days of suggesting that “this” is a better thing to do than “that” are over. We have to do everything all the time. We must become stewards of the earth individually and in concert. We must make climate change a priority in our lives and in the voting booth. TAKE ACTION!

What we do have working for us are millions of skilled people, companies, cities and organizations doing millions of wonderful things across the globe to stop and reverse climate change. We must demand that our governments pour resources into their efforts – today. If we don’t then we need to ask ourselves: Could we get used to a white sky?

Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.


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