Back in 1897, Mark Twain famously said that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. Now, 125 years later, everybody is still talking about the weather - but these days, there are plans to do a lot about it. Are humans really capable of controlling the weather? Will their attempts to do so make life better for the world or open a Pandora’s box of problems?
Our world is getting hotter. Whether this is because of human activity or other factors is a matter of opinion. But it is getting hotter. The days when people looked forward to having fun in the sun have given way to escaping from its extreme heat – sometimes so intense that it is life threatening.
Many summers in New York have felt like one prolonged heat wave, and this has become a serious problem in many cities and regions around the world.
The relentless heat (and drought) are responsible for related problems, too. Out West and in Europe wildfires spring up on a regular basis, endangering both people and property. Internet servers in some areas have been knocked offline because cooling systems failed, and planes sometimes have to be diverted because the runways they were scheduled to land at have melted in the heat.
These and related problems have given rise to various ideas as to how to reverse or at least slow global warming. One of these that’s getting a lot of attention is solar dimming, or reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth. Sunlight warms the world; therefore, it follows that less sunlight means less warming, and that could offset at least some of the Earth’s warming.
It’s by no means certain that such an ambitious project could work, and even if it does, the cost would be exorbitant. Moreover, blocking even some sunlight could worsen our already complex climate woes.
Despite the dangers, this idea is being taken very seriously and here’s why: According to space.com, the Earth has “warmed more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, those trends are continuing and may even be accelerating.”
This explains why some scientists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and ordinary people believe the world has to take this risk. They think there is no alternative, because if warming continues, the climate would become not just more uncomfortable but threaten the survival of humanity.
Complex Problem, Simple Solution?
A very recent article in The New Yorker explained how solar dimming would work: spray highly reflective particles of a material such as sulfur into the stratosphere in order to deflect sunlight and thereby cool the planet.
This idea is basically an extension of what happens when a large volcano erupts and spews particles of ash into the atmosphere. In 1992, for example, the huge eruption at Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines measurably cooled the world for more than a year. In 1815, a gigantic eruption at Mount Tambora resulted in “the year without a summer.”
One of the many scientists that say solar dimming is not only necessary but urgent is Andy Parker, a prominent British climate researcher. Parker said, “Unless we find a way to remove carbon in quantities not imaginable presently, this would be the only way to stop or reverse rapidly rising temperature.” The growing number of people who either agree with him or who are at least sympathetic to this idea suggests there may be support for a new solar dimming industry.
The idea of geoengineering to cool the planet goes back several decades. However, while it generates enthusiasm in some circles, it raises concerns in others that blocking sunlight could cause an agricultural nightmare, and even change rain patterns, which also could result in a catastrophe.
As The World Warms
There has been a great deal of study about this issue, but so far it has been limited to computer models. This may change now as growing numbers of influential people, including billionaires, are getting involved.
Bill Gates is probably the best known. Gates is helping new climate control companies obtain funding. And in 2021, he backed a technology that would reflect some sunlight out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Even those who support geoengineering want more studies done before it is implemented because of potential serious dangers.
“Opponents believe such science comes with unpredictable risks, including extreme shifts in weather patterns,” Forbes writes. Environmentalists also worry that geoengineering projects could be interpreted as giving a “green light” to continue emitting greenhouse gasses.
In theory, even if – some might say especially if – the technology behind geoengineering works, it could still generate disastrous consequences. Following the volcanic eruption in 1815 (which blocked sunlight), many regions of the world suffered from crop failures and near-famine conditions.
More recently, British scientists are blaming ash from volcanic eruptions for severe drought in parts of Africa. There could be other consequences too, such as new waves of immigration as people attempt to escape the heat.
And even though we hear so much about man-made global warming, that is certainly not a consensus opinion. There are numerous, respected climate experts who take issue with this idea.
One of their theories is that the weather on Earth is not affected by carbon dioxide, but rather by the number of sunspots. Scientists who agree believe a very low number of sunspots “might have contributed to a frigid period known as the Little Ice Age” in the last millennium according to a report on NBC in the 1970s. In recent years, sunspot activity has been very low. However, this theory also has not been proven.
In any case, some conventional meteorologists believe the world is about to experience unusually cold weather. Joe Bastardi is a name many New Yorkers will recognize from his years at Accuweather. In his most recent forecast, Bastardi warned that “a spectacular cold outbreak” across the globe is imminent. If he’s right, this would happen at a most inconvenient time, because economies are weak, and people around the world will be hard-pressed to pay the much higher heating bills that will accompany it.
But paying the bills would be much more difficult if unusually cold weather would settle in while technologies like geoengineering reflect sunlight into space.
There’s a great deal about the weather that is not understood, and even more so about controlling the weather. That’s why society should be especially careful about implementing this objective, no matter how tempting the idea. After all, it just may get what it wants.
Sources: climate.gov; forbes.com; nature.com; nbcnews.com; newyorker.com; space.com; wattsupwiththat.com; weforum.org