Scientists may give Earth some sunscreen

Apparently, the world could use some sunshades. At least, that is one of the many options being considered by various scientists, philosophers, and scholars in response to the problem of global warming. They are examining whether artificially cooling the Earth can save it.

A report released in London – and discussed the next day at the U.N. climate conference in South Africa – noted that, theoretically, reflecting a small amount of sunlight back into space before it hits the Earth’s surface would have a considerable, instant effect.

What exactly this effect could entail is worth noting; within years, said the report, global temperatures could return to that which was experienced some 250 years ago, prior to the air being filled with carbon dioxide via the industrial revolution, which trapped heat and caused temperatures to rise.

So what processes are scientists looking at?

Brightening clouds with seawater. Spraying aerosols high in the stratosphere. Painting roofs white. Planting many, many light-colored crops. And, perhaps the most drastic option – positioning “sun shades” over the Earth. This last option is called solar radiation management.

Executing any of those options would be part of a process called geoengineering – deliberately altering the planet and its climate by way of human intervention.

But as with any controversial scientific procedure, the inevitable question must be asked: What are the side effects?

The unintended consequences could range from the physical (unintentionally changing rainfall and weather patterns – for better or worse) to the political (creating conflict between nations over how geoengineering will be controlled).

For example, according to a report by AZ Central, environmentalist Silvia Ribeiro, of Canada-based ETC-Group, went as far as to say that not only was geoengineering an example of dangerous tampering with nature, but that it ought to be outlawed.

“Solar radiation management technologies,” she said, “Are high-risk and extremely dangerous, and they should be treated under international law like nuclear weapons – except, unlike [with] nuclear weapons, we have an opportunity to ban their testing and their proliferation before the fact.”

Many scientists, however, view a man-made response to global warming as vital and necessary.

According to The Star, a study led by Britain’s Royal Society, Washington’s Environmental Defense Fund, and the Third World Academy of Sciences noted, “The slow progress of international climate negotiations has led to increased concerns that sufficient cuts in greenhouse gas emissions may not be achieved in time to avoid unacceptable levels of climate change.”

John Shepherd, a British oceanographer from the University of Southampton, and a lead author on this collective report was careful to point out that “nobody thought this provides a justification for not reducing carbon emissions. We have to stick with Plan A for the time being, and that could be a very long time indeed. This would buy time for people to make the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Meanwhile, the report was careful to note that methods like spraying sulfur into the air, or brightening clouds with seawater, would have to be sustained indefinitely if they were indeed carried out. That’s because “there would be a large and rapid climate change if it was terminated suddenly,” said the report.

In the worst-case scenario, tinkering with the atmosphere could replace one form of climate change with another, the report concluded.

Despite what happens in the years to come, what is clear is that years of study will be required to calculate the potential environmental impacts.

But Shepherd pointed out that, at the very least, the 65-page report got an important conversation going, and that’s the first step.

“No government asked us to do this,” he said. “The U.N. didn’t ask us.

“I hope this can be continued in a more formal and mandated framework, because eventually, somebody will have to make some decisions.”

Photo: “A depiction of the basic function of a sun shade – one of the potential options being considered in response to global warming.” Mikael Haggstrom/Wikipedia


Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the People's World home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cats. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he reviews music, creates artwork, and is working on several books and digital comics.