Star Trek’s favorite vacation planet, Risa, didn’t begin as a tropical paradise, but as the kind of rain-soaked swamp only a Ferengi could love. With an advanced weather control system, the Risians transformed their world.
Could we do the same? And even if we can, should we?
Of course, we’ve been inadvertently modifying the global climate since the Industrial Revolution, by massive clear-cutting of forests and pumping billions of tons of carbon and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But can we intentionally modify the climate to mitigate some of that damage?
The real-world field of geoengineering is grappling with these issues right now. Beginning about thirty years ago with speculative work on terraforming Mars – changing that planet to be more hospitable to Earthly life – scientists realized that the tools to radically transform a world are within our grasp right now.
Since the 1960s, we’ve used “cloud seeding:” releasing particles of silver or lead iodide into the sky in order to make clouds generate rain. But those effects are only local, like the efforts used to ensure that the Beijing Olympics had rain before, not during, key events. Geoengineers, however, are designing interventions on a planetary scale.
The two main directions of intervention are solar radiation management (SRM) and greenhouse gas removal (GGR). SRM would reflect solar energy back into space, in order to cool the planet. This could be done with huge orbital mirrors, by making land and clouds more reflective, or by using aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight.
While giant orbiting mirrors might not be on today’s agenda, both SRM and GGR are. Our oceans are in crisis, from the death of coral reefs to the melting of giant glaciers. Geoengineering techniques could help fix glaciers in place, could trap methane and CO2, and could involve massive seaweed farming to replace the billions of trees stripped from the land.
The technology is here now, or close to our reach. The harder question is, should we use it? While most agree on the ends of preserving our oceans and slowing global warming, there’s a lot of argument over the means.
Some are opposed to solving what they see as social problems – over-consumption of fossil fuels by rich nations, or a capitalist system pursuing economic growth at all costs – with technology. Some worry about unilateral action: what if Elon Musk just decides to start launching orbital mirrors? Should he decide climate policy for the whole planet?
There aren’t any easy answers, but these aren’t easy problems. Whatever we decide to do, as individuals, nations, or as a species, scientists and engineers are working hard to give us some technological options.
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Buck, Holly Jean (2019). “The desperate race to cool the ocean before it’s too late.” MIT Technology Review. https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/04/23/136001/the-desperate-race-to-cool-the-ocean-before-its-too-late/
Fleming, Amy (2021). “Cloud spraying and hurricane slaying: how ocean geoengineering became the frontier of the climate crisis.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/23/cloud-spraying-and-hurricane-slaying-could-geoengineering-fix-the-climate-crisis
Harvey, Alisa (2022). “Geoengineering: Can we control the weather?” LIVESCIENCE. https://www.livescience.com/geoengineering-the-weather
The Nature Education Knowledge Project (n.d.). “Geoengineering and Environmental Ethics.” https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/geoengineering-and-environmental-ethics-80061230/
Oxford Geoengineering Programme (n.d.). “What is Geoengineering?” http://www.geoengineering.ox.ac.uk/www.geoengineering.ox.ac.uk/what-is-geoengineering/what-is-geoengineering/
Vaughn, Adam (2022). “Can we beat climate change by geoengineering the oceans?” New Scientist. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg25533930-600-can-we-beat-climate-change-by-geoengineering-the-oceans/