Scientists Study Radical Plan to Artificially Cool the Earth

By: James Dorman | Published: Jul 04, 2024

Experts recently published a study looking at artificial methods to cool the planet and combat the effects of climate change. This study claims to contradict some old fears about the impact of using such artificial measures.

However, many scientists are dubious about the study. They claim it’s not comprehensive enough and doesn’t properly consider the risks of the methods it advocates.


Geoengineering basically describes the practice of employing emerging technologies to manipulate the environment. The aim of this manipulation is to offset some of the impacts of climate change. 

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Solar geoengineering specifically looks to reflect a small amount of sunlight into space or boost the amount of solar radiation that escapes back into space in an effort to cool the planet.


Concerns About Geoengineering

There are numerous concerns about the idea of geoengineering in this way, foremost among them being whether it’s safe.

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Solar geoengineering to cool the planet would likely involve spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. It would mimic gas from volcanoes and reflect heat from the sun. Many scientists believe spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in this way might be unsafe.

The New Study

A study published in Nature Climate Change, a peer-reviewed journal, proposes a geoengineering climate change solution that resolves some of the potential problems associated with the practice.

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The paper suggests that using geoengineering to cool the Earth to the point of eliminating roughly half of warming as opposed to all of it generally wouldn’t worsen things like water availability, extreme rain and extreme temperatures and wouldn’t make hurricanes more intense.

Researchers Still Acknowledge Some Risks

The study does acknowledge that artificially cooling the climate wouldn’t be totally without risk. The study states that a small fraction of places, 0.4%, may still see the impacts of climate change worsen.

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Harvard Professor David Keith, co-author of the study, states, “I am not saying we know it works and we should do it now.” He adds, “Indeed, I would absolutely oppose deployment now. There’s still only a little group of people looking at this. There’s lots of uncertainty.”

Criticisms of the Paper

Some critics of the study say that advocates of the paper may be overstating the findings of the study.

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Alan Robock of Rutgers University says that the paper doesn’t look closely enough at the specific methods that would be utilized to cool the planet artificially and the potential consequences of these methods.


Atmospheric Aerosols

According to Robock, a geophysics professor and researcher, the most likely method of turning down the heat of the sun would be through the use of aerosols sprayed into the atmosphere.

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“They focus in this paper on temperature and water availability in different regions,” Robock said. “Those are only two things that would change with stratospheric aerosols.” 


Risks of Relying on Unproven Technology

Some climate advocacy groups are concerned about relying on unproven technology to cool the climate, suggesting that doing so could hamper efforts to reduce carbon emissions from industry and vehicles.

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Regardless, the technology itself could cost billions of dollars a year to implement after the research and development costs to get it viable.


Ethical Question

Robock claims other studies have similarly explored the notion of spraying atmospheric aerosols to cool the planet, saying one of his own studies lists 27 reasons why this approach may not be advisable.

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Beyond this, Robock says there are ethical considerations to deploying the technology. “We’re not able right now to say whether, if global warming continues, we should ever decide to start spraying this stuff into the stratosphere,” Robock states. “Would solar-radiation management, would geoengineering make it more dangerous or less dangerous?”


The Intended Message of the Study

Critics of the study say it doesn’t explore specific techniques of solar geoengineering in enough detail to address potential dangers and determine whether the approach is viable or beneficial. But Harvard’s David Keith says this isn’t the point of the study.

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Keith stated that the main message of the study is to not rule out geoengineering as a tool in fighting climate change, as “there is the possibility that solar geoengineering could really substantially reduce climate risks for the most vulnerable.”


May Be Necessary

Keith is not alone in recognizing that interventionist methods to try and artificially cool the planet might have to be explored in the future if the climate crisis worsens.

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A U.N. report last year stated that using geoengineering via sulfur dioxide injected into the atmosphere may be necessary, though the approach comes with major uncertainties.


Artificially Manipulating Our Climate

As we continue to see the impacts of our planet’s changing climate, with increased extreme weather events all around the world year after year, it’s understandable that scientists are exploring every possible avenue to combat this change.

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This includes potential technologies to artificially manipulate our climate. As these technologies are in their infancy, there is obviously pushback from some scientists about supporting their deployment too enthusiastically. But as the climate crisis worsens, expect to see the debate around geoengineering intensify.