Guest essay by Eric Worrall
One hundred scientists gathered late last month in a luxury ski resort in Maine to discuss Geoengineering.
To Stop Global Warming, Should Humanity Dim the Sky?
The world’s top geoengineering researchers met off the record to discuss the possibility in Maine last month.
ROBINSON MEYER AUG 7, 2017
Late last month, about 100 researchers from around the world gathered at Logan International Airport in Boston. A fleet of buses appeared to whisk them to a remote and luxurious ski resort in northeastern Maine. They met to talk, drink, and cogitate off the record for five days about a messy solution to one of the world’s most challenging problems. They had gathered to discuss how to provide humanity one last line of defense against catastrophic global warming: solar geoengineering.
Last month’s meeting arrived at the consensus that this final technique—called stratospheric aerosol injection—is the best bet going forward. Researchers don’t see a technological impediment to developing seeding tools, seeing the few remaining problems as within the capability of any large aerospace company. There are plenty of natural precedents for stratospheric aerosols, too—volcanoes have gone off hundreds of time during human history—and they see it as the most reversible and easy to model.
“When you put particles in the stratosphere, it’s simpler to calculate what the effect would be on the energy budget and on the temperature,” said Storelvmo. “Anything that involves clouds generally becomes much more complicated.”
This neat efficiency separates solar geoengineering from its sibling, “carbon geoengineering,” which aims to directly scrub the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. If perfected, carbon geoengineering could permanently solve the problem of global warming, but researchers consider the technological advances needed to accomplish it far-off, and the meeting didn’t address it.
It’s still unclear whether solar geoengineering will ever be deployed. Some researchers, like Wagner, consider it a virtual certainty. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when someone will pull the trigger,” he told me.
Ken Caldeira wasn’t so sure—though he said that last month’s meeting helped solar geoengineering seem real to him. “The meeting made me take it a little more seriously as something practical, and not just theoretical,” he said.
He continued: “I think it really rests on this question of: Is climate change going to be catastrophic, or is it going to be a nuisance and an ongoing cost? If it’s a nuisance, probably people will muddle through. But if climate change does turn out to be catastrophic, then solar geoengineering is pretty much the only way that our political system could start cooling the Earth in a few years or decades.”
The next off-the-record Gordon conference on solar geoengineering has already been planned for the summer of 2020.
Why did the geoengineering scientists have to be bussed off to a remote luxury ski resort? Boston has good facilities for hosting large conferences. In any case, if anyone missed the Maine conference, Berlin is hosting a major geoengineering conference in October.