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Front Range scientists to study controversial climate modification method

Scientists at Colorado State University will review the pros and cons of Climate Intervention.

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Scientists have discovered a way to reverse the warming of climate change -- but it would require injecting more particles into the atmosphere to alter global temperature.

After reading that, your Spidey senses may probably put up a few red flags, and you're not alone. Atmospheric scientists feel the same way, but the climate projections for the next 50 to 80 years might be just dire enough to consider some more out-of-the-box solutions. 

Current Climate Crisis

The climate has already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1900, and the Paris Agreement in 2015 set a goal to stop climate warming at 1.5 degrees. But a recent report published by the United Nations shows that even if all the member countries met their goals, the climate would still warm to about by more than 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. 

Climate scientists say there is no natural variable that could cause any warming in just 120 years. This warming that we are experiencing is a result of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from human activities. 

Climate studies over the past 25 years show that the heat waves, drought, extreme storms, flooding, wildfires and sea level rise are all directly related to the unnatural warming of the atmosphere. 

“As a climate scientist I am extremely worried about the unprecedented nature of the changes that we’re seeing, and at how rapidly these changes are occurring," said Atmospheric Science Professor Jim Hurrell with Colorado State University (CSU). "And all these adverse effects are only going to grow in magnitude over the coming decades."

Climate Mitigation and Carbon Extraction

Hurrell said the only true solution or cure for climate change is mitigation.

"Mitigation means reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," he said. "We are making progress, especially in the United States, but I have concerns that levels of mitigation are moving too slowly and aren't aggressive enough."

He said the big problem is that greenhouse gases like CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, which makes it difficult to make progress by simply reducing emissions. 

"That's why another focus should be in implementing methodologies and technologies that remove carbons from the atmosphere and safely sequester it or store it away," he said.

Hurrell said a very aggressive mitigation and carbon extraction plan could stop global warming at close to 2 degrees Celsius, but it would be smart to have a plan for how to deal with climate change should a more worst-case-scenario play out.

Climate Intervention

There's a relatively new branch of climate research now gaining some traction, and it's centered around the strong atmospheric science community on the Front Range of Colorado. 

It's called Climate Intervention -- where humans deliberately manipulate the atmosphere in an attempt to correct the mistakes that lead to climate change.

"I hope that climate intervention is something we never have to resort to," said Hurrell. "No climate scientist is advocating that we do climate intervention at this point in time, but we feel that it’s important to do the research on this.” 

Solar Reflection / Solar Engineering

Hurrell said scientists at CSU have teamed up with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study a type of climate intervention called solar reflection or solar geoengineering.  

It involves putting tiny reflective particles high in the atmosphere that would reflect some of the sunlight away from the earth, mimicking the natural effects of a large volcanic eruption like Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. 

“The planet can cool down by maybe a half a degree Celsius from just one volcanic eruption," said Hurrell. "And that cooling effect can last for many months or maybe longer, like a year or year and a half.” 

Hurrell said that scientists already know this technique would work, that it could completely undo the warming that humans have caused over the past 100 years, although the atmosphere would continue to counteract those efforts with further warming as long as greenhouse gas emissions continue at high levels.  

But he said it would not likely be a viable permanent solution. It could be something used to buy more time, avoiding some of the worst effects of climate change while mitigation strategies get more aggressive. 

One aspect of solar geoengineering that is not clear is the possible side effects. Hurrell said if you tamper with one part of nature, you can expect a reaction in another part. Hence, the importance that the research starts sooner than later.

“If it turns out the impacts of climate intervention are bad. That the risks outweigh the benefits, and we don’t want to do it, the best way to convince people not to do it is through the research,” he said. 

Moral Hazard

Another argument against climate intervention is the moral hazard. 

Hurrell said it could give irresponsible nations or industries a sort of "get out of jail free" card.

"It might give policy makers or certain industries an excuse to continue the irresponsible burning of fossil fuels," he said. "In a way, it's like taking a pain killer over and over instead of actually fixing the problem causing the pain."

And then there's another level over political issues that will come when the world has to decide how to implement a solar geoengineering project. 

"Who will get to call the shots?" said Hurrell. "Who gets to determine how much we should cool the planet, and for what period of time? Who gets to control the global thermostat?"

He said it will be just as important to study the policy issues that may come with climate intervention as it will be to study the natural side effects that might occur.

The Science

Hurrell said the theory of solar geoengineering has been around for nearly 50 years, but it wasn't taken very seriously by the science community until 2015 when the National Science Academy published its first report on the topic. 

He said recent projections in the climate models are painting a more dire view of the future climate than they once did, so the need for more desperate solutions is now required.

Hurrell was part of another National Sciences Academy report in March of 2021 that proposed a serious agenda for how climate intervention research should move forward. 

"I think there will be an increasing number of research efforts now as the U.S. government begins to invest more and more in this type of research," he said. "There are already a number of institutions across the Front Range of Colorado that are leading the way in this line of research."

He said scientists are using NCAR's computer modeling strength and NOAA's measurement and monitoring strengths, but CSU is in a great position to focus in on the many individual disciplines that might be impacted by climate intervention. 

"We have a strong atmospheric science program that can handle various aspects of weather and climate," he said. "But we also have the ability to focus on things like agriculture, human health, and forestry impacts with our established field of experts." 

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