Outside/In: Is Geoengineering Crazy Enough To Work, Or Just Plain Crazy? | New Hampshire Public Radio

Outside/In: Is Geoengineering Crazy Enough To Work, Or Just Plain Crazy?

Jul 17, 2020

Ever since the threat of climate change was first made public, scientists have offered the possibility of a get-out-of-jail-free card: geoengineering. Reducing emissions is hard, so why not just engineer the Earth's atmosphere more to our liking?  Decades later, the science of geoengineering is still in its infancy, but a growing number of researchers are trying to change that. Should they?

Plan B

By Sam Evans-Brown

In the very first government report to mention climate change, submitted to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, authors mention the possibility of countering climate change…with more climate change.  

“A change in the radiation balance in the opposite direction to that which might result from the increase of atmospheric CO2 could be produced by raising the albedo, or reflectivity, of the earth.”

 Geoengineering is, essentially, climate control: the idea that we should deliberately change the world’s climate, even more than we already have, in order to counteract the effect of our carbon emissions.  This early report was focused on pouring glitter into oceans (sort of) to make them more reflective. That’s not the focus anymore. Today, geoengineering conversations often revolve around whether we could deploy a massive fleet of planes all over the world to spray tiny reflective particles very high up in the atmosphere. 

 Sound a little crazy? Yeah, it might be. Gernot Wagner, co-founder of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, puts it this way: “Why try to address a pollution problem with more pollution? I mean just to be clear that's what this is.” But crazy as it may seem, geoengineering may be cheaper than the alternative. Billions of dollars per year, Wagner says, “relative to the trillions of dollars that unmitigated climate change costs”.  

Credit Graphic by Funnel, INC.

For more than fifty years now, this idea – and it’s price tag - has tickled our imaginations. But there's one big problem with this technology: it doesn’t really exist yet, says Jane Flegal, a professor at Arizona State University. It’s merely a hypothesis, tested with almost nothing but computer simulations and climate models — many of which simply turn down how much heat from the sun is coming through the atmosphere, just to see what happens. 

“We have a pretty minimal understanding of what the unintended consequences might be,” Flegal says.

 Learn more about Harvard's geoengineering program here. 

Introducing: By Degrees

 By Sam Evans-Brown & Annie Ropeik

 The daunting size and scope of climate change, as a global problem, can make it hard for individuals to know how to respond. What power do I have to make change? How will this effect me?   

Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR

Those same qualities can make it hard for reporters, too. Even for journalists on the environmental beat, the pressures of reporting day -to- day events can prevent complicated stories about climate from getting the attention they need.  

NHPR has a new project that aims to tackle that very problem. It's called By Degrees, and it's a deliberate effort to report on how the New England region is living through and responding to climate change. Spearheading the effort is NHPR’s current environmental reporter Annie Ropeik.

 Listen to Annie’s first story for the project.

 Fruit Fight Results

By the Outside/In Team 

The polls are closed in our epic fruit fight in which four producers debated an inessential, but delightful question: what is the greatest fruit of all time (or GFOAT)? We’ve tallied up all of your votes. Here are the final results: 

  • The Coconut - 144 votes
  • The Gourd - 112 votes
  • The Pepper - 87 votes
  • The Vanilla Bean - 71 votes

Listen to the original episode and additional listener GFOAT submissions here.