Here’s what’s going to happen: Every year for the foreseeable future, scientists, activists, and citizens concerned about climate change will have a discussion in one form or another about geoengineering. There will be editorials and vague proposals in journals; there will be think pieces on the need not to do it, but to talk about it. These will increase in volume and urgency as our situation becomes ever clearer, perhaps starting right now, with the release of the latest and most dire Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
But then, one day, you will look up, and the planes will be in the sky. They will be dumping tiny aerosol particles designed to deflect bits of sunlight back into space. Maybe this will happen when 10 million people have to vacate coastal Bangladesh and start pouring into India. Maybe when the last resident of Kiribati finally gives up hope and moves to Fiji.
But it will happen, and buried in chapter 4 of the new IPCC report is the reason why: it’s cheap, and it’ll probably work.
We have been having the same conversation about geoengineering for at least a decade. It was “a bad idea whose time has come” in 2010. Scientists were “nervous” about it in 2015. They called it “terrifying” in 2014. And those are just from the first few pages of a Google news search.
We have this same conversation about intentional, large-scale tinkering with the climate to counteract our ongoing, less-intentional tinkering with the climate because climate change is scary, and it is dangerous, and because we are paralysed. But the dark not-really-a-secret of solar radiation management, as the primary idea is known, is that it is absurdly cheap.
Maybe a few billion dollars per year could retrofit some planes and send them into the stratosphere, where they would endlessly dump out sulfate aerosols until the planet starts to cool. And by most scientists’ estimates, it would cool the planet. Those simple facts are the driving force that will turn our never-ending conversation cycle of scary-but-necessary-but-dangerous-but-crucial into planes in the sky.
Of course, that doesn’t negate all the problems with solar radiation management’s use. It doesn’t fix ocean acidification. Once we start this project, some models say we really, really shouldn’t stop. There is a danger that geoengineering will lead to complacency in the fight to transition away from fossil fuels. And finally, this would be a planetary-scale experiment with so many variables as to make firm predictions of the results nearly impossible.
All true. And all will be forgotten when entire countries start disappearing beneath the waves, or the food shortages and famines kick into high gear. The planes may be American, or Chinese, or Indian, or they might belong to rogue state with an axe to grind. Or maybe some of the world’s poorest countries will pool their resources to get it started. But the planes will fly, bearing one flag or another. Technofixing our way out of the woods will prove far too tempting to pass up.
The latest IPCC report found that the world could reach 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2030. Keeping it from soaring beyond that level and into the realm of the catastrophic “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Does that sound like something humans are remotely planning on doing, given what we have seen to this point? I hate to borrow from a fictional version of Mark Zuckerberg, but if we were going to solve climate change, we would have solved climate change.
Once that reality settles in, geoengineering will transition from “dangerous concept” to “dangerous reality” essentially overnight.
But this isn’t purely a sky-is-falling screed. If people accepted this prediction, it might have some positive effect on the end result of geoengineering. Accepting the inevitable could spur the development of a regulatory framework, for instance. In the absolute best case scenario, it could even convince some reluctant actors to push harder on mitigation efforts.
Some day in the distant future, whatever is left of humanity will spend countless hours trying to figure out how we let the climate crisis happen. We had all the knowledge necessary to stop it, and failed. I’m betting, though, that there will be very little guesswork around that particular moment in history when the sulfate aerosols began their reflective dance through the stratosphere. After all, entire countries were starting to disappear, famine was spreading as quickly as the refugees, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets were on the verge of collapse. The only question might be: What took so long?