How volcanic eruptions may hold the key to averting the climate crisis

A podcast exploring whether solar geo-engineering is a viable solution to the climate crisis

February 5, 2020
solar geoengineering image
Solar geo-engineering involves pumping the atmosphere with tiny light-reflecting particles. Credit: Jaymantri| Pexels/CC0

As the world faces unprecedented climate disasters — from the months-long bushfires in Australia to the rapidly melting ice-sheets of Greenland and Antarctica — teams of scientists from around the globe are busying themselves to come up with new climate solutions.

One of these teams is the Harvard’s Solar Geo-engineering Research Program, co-founded  and directed by Gernot Wagner and David Keith in 2017. The Harvard group, managed by Lizzie Burns, is currently developing an innovative climate-altering technology called solar geo-engineering, which aims to halt global warming temperatures by mimicking volcanic eruptions.

Very large volcanic eruptions shoot large quantities of light-reflecting particles into the atmosphere, resulting in sunlight being sent back into space which temporarily cools the Earth. The Harvard group want to mimic this very mechanism by artificially releasing small quantities of tiny light-reflecting particles into the Earth’s stratosphere in a small-scale experiment called the Stratospheric Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx).

But while the Harvard group believe solar geo-engineering — alongside other, more traditional, climate policies, such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions, reforestation, and carbon taxes — will be central to devising a climate solution, other scientists are skeptical. Ray Pierrehumbert, a professor of physics at Oxford University, thinks solar geo-engineering presents the perfect justification for fossil-intensive industries to continue engaging in environmentally damaging practices. He adds that solar geo-engineering may escalate into a fully fledged “climate war” if there’s no central governing body to regulate how it is used, given that deployment of the technology in one country could have adverse climate consequences in other regions.  

Both skeptics and advocates, however, agree on one thing. The socio-political and ethical implications this technology may give rise to should be taken with utmost seriousness.

Music credit: Rebuild Jampa Sessions by Chico Correa Pocket Band | CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

About the Author

Jonathan Moens

Jonathan Moens is a New York based science journalist with a background in neuroscience and philosophy.


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