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Climate Hackers: One man’s plan to stop global warming by shooting particles into the atmosphere

Climate Hackers: One man’s plan to stop global warming by shooting particles into the atmosphere


Can science succeed where politics has failed?

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The National Park System is turning 100, and The Verge is celebrating with Wilderness Week: a look at the natural world, its freaky critters, and its future.

This year is already on pace to be the warmest on record, setting off another season of heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires around the world. But it would only be the latest record to fall, as 15 of the 16 hottest years have occurred since 2001. In turn, the ice sheets are melting, oceans are rising, hurricanes are increasing in number and intensity, and climate refugees are pouring over borders.

Climate change is real, so what do we do about it?

So despite what you may have heard about Chinese hoaxes or scientific fraud, it’s increasingly obvious that climate change is very real and well underway. Now the question is: what do we do about it?

After decades of inaction, our options are limited. To have a chance of avoiding a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperatures, a threshold scientists have long warned could trigger a cascading series of environmental catastrophes, greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 40 to 70 percent by midcentury.

But at this point, carbon dioxide levels are still rising as the population swells, nations modernize, and thousands of new natural gas and coal power plants come online. Meanwhile, separate studies show that current sustainable energy sources, even if aggressively expanded, can’t meet today’s needs, much less future demands.

Ed Hawkins

Add it up and it’s clear that the world needs new technologies to avoid the worst of what’s coming: more efficient green energy alternatives; machines or methods for removing greenhouse gases from the skies and oceans; sturdier shields against the looming dangers; or, very likely, all of the above. In a Verge series launching today, Climate Hackers, we'll highlight the scientists, technologists, and researchers working to develop these new tools.

Some think geoengineering is like playing God

The series begins with David Keith, a Harvard professor of applied physics and public policy who has arguably done the most work exploring the promise of a "geoengineering" method known as solar radiation management. Scientists borrowed the idea from nature: earlier volcanic eruptions have cooled worldwide temperatures by blasting massive amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. The particles help to reflect more of the Sun’s light back into space, which means less of its heat reaches the Earth.

Keith and others believe humans could mimic this natural phenomenon by launching planes or balloons into the stratosphere to spray similar sorts of particles. His models show variations on this approach could offset at least half of the rise in temperatures due this century, significantly reducing the associated environmental dangers. Given the growing threat of climate change, he believes it’s time to move from lab experiments to limited trials in the real world.

But others see geoengineering as a reckless attempt at playing God. They argue that scientists can’t possibly predict or control the consequences of an experiment conducted at the scale of a planet, and shouldn’t be allowed to make guinea pigs of us all.

To learn more about the science and controversy, check out Climate Hackers.