Local weather change: Can people be the Earth’s air conditioner?
November 17, 2021 | by Noah Franklin
It is not the first time that life on earth has threatened its very existence. Photosynthesis by ocean cyanobacteria emitted huge amounts of molecular oxygen into the atmosphere more than 2 billion years ago. Known as the Great Oxygenation Event, it caused severe cooling and freezing of the earth’s surface. It also spurred the evolution of the species to greater diversity and complexity that gave birth to Homo sapiens.
During the industrial revolution, people began to massively pollute their environment. At the end of the 19th century, the use of coal and heavy machinery made many jobs dangerous. The area around factories became uninhabitable. The air filled with particles and chemicals not only harmed people’s health, but also created problems for industry. Print, food and textile production suffered the most. However, this has not stopped technological advances. This led to the invention of the air conditioning system.
Can we air-condition the earth instead of reducing our energy consumption and evolving into a kind of leaf-eating three-toed sloth, known for having the lowest daily energy consumption of any mammal? The answer is yes. When we have become so powerful that we can warm the earth a few degrees in the life of a generation, we must also be able to use this force to cool it down. It’s called geoengineering.
The two most promising approaches are to control the solar radiation reaching the surface of the earth and to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Harvard researchers have long been involved in solar geoengineering. Later this year they want to test locally whether the release of aerosol particles in the stratosphere can darken the sun sufficiently to cool the earth’s surface.
The ability of modern computers to create an accurate 10-day weather forecast gives rise to hope that the effects of solar geoengineering can also be incorporated into the computer models. However, concerns remain that climate protection could falter. If aerosol management of the Earth’s surface temperature becomes a reality, all countries and regions will need to work together to avoid weather conflicts.
Controlling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be easier, but it is also more expensive. Projects range from growing huge amounts of biomass that absorbs carbon dioxide to removing carbon directly from the air through specially designed power plants, for which XPRIZE announced a $ 100 million competition last month. Elon MuskElon Reeve Musk A Better Plan Than Giving 0.00000 Each Separated Immigrant Elon Musk mocks Sanders for demanding the rich pay their fair share sponsors the competition.
The collection and sequestration of atmospheric carbon at a level that can affect global climate requires an enormous amount of energy. The use of carbon-free nuclear energy for this purpose may be inevitable, using nuclear fission reactors first and fusion reactors in the future. Clean nuclear fusion is a source of sunlight that sustains life on earth, and fusion power plants may not be far from being on the market.
One may ask: why try to darken the sun or remove carbon dioxide from the air when we can stop it by banning the use of fossil fuels? The answer must be sought in the law of life. Species have competed for available energy during biological evolution. This is also true of human societies – those who used more energy did more work and became more progressive.
If the US stops using certain forms of energy, whoever continues to use it will win economic competition. To believe that the global economies will collectively agree to a slowdown is as naive as to believe that participants in the New York City Marathon can agree to run at the same pace. More in line with the law of life is a scenario in which economic competition extends to technologies that enable control of the earth’s climate. Not necessarily to cool down, but also to warm up when needed. We may be overdue for another Ice Age.
Human life was made longer and more enjoyable by using more energy, not less. We have evolved from living in caves to air-conditioned houses, from riding to driving and flying, from tribal medicine to the modern hospital, from sending letters to texting. I refuse to become a three-toed sloth. Hats off to Musk. The air-conditioned earth must be the next step in human evolution.
Eugene M. Chudnovsky is a distinguished physics professor at the Graduate School and Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY) teaching an energy course and researching for the US Department of Energy (DOE). The views expressed in this article are its own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the CUNY or the DOE.