What’s The Big Idea?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I read an article recently about two scientists, one from Harvard and one from Yale, who have come up with a scheme that uses a system of solar geoengineering to cool the surface of the Earth. Their plan is to spray chemicals into the Earth’s atmosphere – an approach called stratospheric aerosol injection, even has an acronym, SAI – capable of reflecting sunlight back into space, thereby dampening the amount of heat that arrives on Earth from the sun.

I could write more detail, be more explicit, admit that this is science beyond my understanding, find experts to help me understand what is being proposed. But as I was reading about this SAI plan, my thinking took off in an unscientific direction.

Here’s what kept going through my mind. How can two intelligent, informed, well-meaning scientists seriously consider this as a viable, stopgap approach to mitigating global warming? There might be financial considerations, the potential for a windfall that would come with the manufacture of new technologies. After all, SAI will require designing delivery systems capable of handling huge payloads of chemicals. Boeing engineers are probably already at their computers. Also, there might be a justifiable scientific explanation that has eluded me. But, spraying chemicals into Earth’s atmosphere? Really?

And there is something else. This idea is being taken seriously by the scientific community. As Andy Parker of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany told Earther this scheme “has moved from the scientific fringes into mainstream climate mitigation discourse….The genie’s out of the bottle, and I don’t believe not talking about it is gonna make the idea go away.”

And Parker and his colleague Peter Irvine are talking about it. The idea is untested, they wrote, and “could prove catastrophic.” In their article they describe the potential for a phenomenon called, ‘termination shock,’ a sudden and rapid spike in global temperatures, should the SAI be terminated. According to Parker, this idea of potential catastrophe is “getting pushback from the scientists,” who say that they would just have to be “smart enough to keep some back-up systems around.”

So I want to come back to my question. How could this happen? Why are these two men so invested in this project, so much so that their response to the potential catastrophic effects of their system is to keep some back-up systems around? Why are they not devising schemes to reduce greenhouse gases instead? Are they not missing the point?

I imagine that grant support, politics, financial considerations, etc. are involved. But, I propose that there is something else, something subjective that fuels this project.

This research plan flows from the basic belief of the scientists that human beings can control nature. That we have the intelligence and the ingenuity to rein in anything nature throws at us.

And in this particular case, I believe there is an additional factor. These two scientists exist in the rarified world of brilliance and creativity, where competition for novelty is as basic as brushing your teeth in the morning. I believe these men shine in the promise of a Nobel prize. Harvard, since the beginning of the Nobel award in 1901, has consistently ranked first, worldwide, in the number of all-around Nobel laureates.

Given their special circumstances, and in consideration of the dire projections that have come out recently related to the heating up of our planet, how can you ask these scientists to put on the brakes and take a closer, uncensored look at what they are doing, or are about to do? How can they not just charge ahead in their white lab coats in their pursuit of saving the world from the hot sun?

But, who is going to save the world from them?