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Scientists Weigh in on Plans to Hack the Weather and Cool the Earth

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Geoengineering, i.e. tinkering with the climate to stop the rising tides of climate change, is a provocative and frankly still kinda crazy idea. Two long-awaited reports from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) out today have some pretty harsh words about geoengineering.

The reports don't use the term "geoengineering" but are instead titled "Climate Intervention." The rebranding is necessary, the authors say, because geoengineering implies a precision that does not yet exist. Our scientific knowledge is still far too patchy to understand the exact consequences of our actions.


The reports are focused on two different strategies for planet-hacking: albedo modification and carbon dioxide removal.

The report calls out the first, when particles that reflect sunlight are sprayed into the atmosphere, as especially risky. (Think Snowpiercer as its worst case scenario.) In fact, the author also renamed it "albedo modification" from the more commonly used "solar radiation management" because, well, we don't know enough to be "managing" anything. (Albedo refers to how much sunlight is reflected by the Earth.)


"There is significant potential for unanticipated, unmanageable, and regrettable consequences in multiple human dimensions from albedo modification at climate altering scales," they write in the report. One of the co-authors took to the more colorful pages Slate, where he called the idea simply "barking mad." Albedo modification also doesn't address the underlying problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide removal, the focus of the other report, is more feasible. In fact, we already have ways of removing carbon dioxide; they are simply slow (planting trees) or expensive (carbon dioxide scrubbers that remove the gas from the air). Researchers need to find better ways of removing carbon but also the political will to do so.

The National Academy of Sciences doesn't tell us anything scientists didn't already know, but as advisors to the nation on science, its reports are influential for setting the research agenda. By separating carbon dioxide and albedo modification into two reports, for example, the NAS can advocate for one type of geoengineering over the other. Oh wait, I meant "climate intervention."

[NAS Reports Summary, Report: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration Report, Report: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth]


Top image: Shebeko/shutterstock