Climate Modification: Good or Bad?

A New York Times article asks: is it okay to tinker with the environment to fight climate change?  

Harvard professor David Keith has been investigating a solution to global warming. He wants to fly ten Gulfstream jets around the world and release thousands of pounds of liquid sulfur. Once in gas form, this chemical compound converts into aerosol of particles that stay in the atmosphere for several years and scatter sunlight. By reflecting some of the incoming solar radiation the Earth's surface temperatures should begin to cool. Can this geoengineering solution to global warming work?

Professor Emanuele Di Lorenzo, Director of the Program in Ocean Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech, discusses the good and bad of climate geoengineering at the Weather Channel with Stephanie Abrams and Jim Cantore.

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It is theoretically possible to increase Earth’s albedo -- that is its ability of the planet to reflect incoming solar radiation back into space -- by injecting chemical compounds in the upper atmosphere -- says Di Lorenzo. However, the success of this geoengineering intervention cannot be assessed only based on the science, we need to consider the “human facor”. Di Lorenzo refers to this approach as “taking the climate pill”. He says that while most governments would agree that reducing CO2 emissions is the long-term and healthier path to mitigate the effects of climate change, when offered with an easy fix, they may end up taking the “climate pill” and forgo the hard work of reducing emissions and developing green technologies.

Increasing the Earth albedo may cool the planet but will not get rid of the high CO2 concentrations, which have other important environmental impacts like ocean acidification -- says Alan Robock, Professor of atmospheric sciences at Rutgers. He also warns that there are other possible unintended consequences of tinkering with Earth’s radiation budget by releasing sulfur in the atmosphere, for example impacts on agriculture and depletion of the planet’s ozone layer.

The geoengineering approach proposed by the Harvard team may provide a short term solution to global warming while governments implement strategies to reduce CO2 emissions and concentrations. However, in the long run, opposing the greenhouse warming with an equally powerful geoengineered force (e.g. artificially increasing the Earth albedo) can lead to dangerous runaway effects -- says Di Lorenzo. Balancing powerful forces of nature may be very tricky and difficult due to the strong nonlinear effects associated with Earth’s climate feedbacks.

“I would feel safer in pursuing other types of geoengineering solutions that aim at capturing or reducing carbon in the atmosphere ” -- says Di Lorenzo. This is one of the mission goals of the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech led by Prof. Timothy Lieuwen.

While geoengineering is on the rise and promises to offer important technological solutions to enrvironemtnal issues, "empowering the new generations to become part of the climate change solution is equally key" -- says Kim Cobb, ADVANCE Professor at Georgia Tech. A few years back, she launched “The Carbon Reduction Challenge”, an initiative that brings together teams of students to implement small-scale reduction in CO2 emissions. The team that wins the challenge gets a free trip to Wahsington DC to visit congeress (related news media).

“There is no one solution to bring CO2 concentrations of the atmosphere to safer levels, but rather a collection of efforts where individuals, groups and governments embrace a cultural shift towards a more sustainable use of the environment and its resources” -- concludes Di Lorenzo.


Shellby Miller

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  • Prof. Emanuele Di Lorenzo, at Weather Channel

  • Dr. Di Lorenzo at Weather Channel with Jim Cantore and Jen Carfagno

  • Georgia Tech group visits Congress. Pictured from left to right: Rosenbaum, Cobb, Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia), Hamilton, Ploussard, and Aggarwal. Photo courtesy of the Congressional Office of Rep. John Lewis.