A risky gamble: scientists want to dim the sun in hopes of slowing climate change – Screen Shot
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A risky gamble: scientists want to dim the sun in hopes of slowing climate change

In 2022, extreme heatwaves, drought, and devastating floods affected millions of lives and cost billions to economies around the world. While the past eight years are on track to be the warmest on record, tell-tale signs and impacts of climate change became even more concerning this year—as glaciers took a heavy toll and sea levels rose by nearly ten millimetres since January 2020 to a new record high.

In February, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing was the first of the renowned events to rely completely on artificial snow. At the time, several reports predicted that the winter games would be unviable at 20 out of 21 former host venues by the year 2100 if global warming continues on the trajectory of the preceding two decades.

Fuelled by ever-rising greenhouse gas concentrations and accumulated heat, nations initially deployed initiatives to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane by replacing fossil fuels with clean energy. With new laws taxing cow and sheep burps, the measures are certainly underway but it’s not happening fast enough to keep up with the horrors of an overheating Earth.

As a result, scientists are now considering a controversial idea that includes shooting undisclosed dollars worth of particles into the stratosphere to dim the sun and hopefully cool our home planet. Welcome to the outlandish world of solar geoengineering, a scheme that is considered to be the last resort for tackling the climate crisis.

What is solar geoengineering?

Solar geoengineering, or solar radiation modification (SRM), involves spraying highly-reflective particles of a material like sulphur into the upper atmosphere to form fine aerosols. While sulphur dioxide is the most commonly discussed candidate, aluminium, calcium carbonate, and diamond dust have also been proposed. Theoretically, these tiny particles would bounce sunlight back to outer space and limit climate change.

The idea behind the scheme is to essentially mimic the effect of a volcanic eruption—like Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which cooled the planet by about half a degree Celsius for several months. If we decide to solar geoengineer the Earth, it will reportedly be the second most expansive project that humans have ever undertaken.

That being said, everyone studying solar geoengineering seems to agree on the fact that it’s a terrible idea.

A dangerous gamble between pros and cons

For starters, the wider consequences of solar geoengineering are still poorly understood, making it a potentially risky approach to tackling global warming. Although scientific evidence suggests that it would “likely produce a substantial, rapid cooling effect worldwide” and “could also reduce the rate of sea-level rise, sea-ice loss, heatwaves, extreme weather, and climate change-associated anomalies in the water cycle,” the real question is: what else would it do?

As reported by The New Yorker, solar geoengineering could, at least temporarily, turn the sky hazy or milky. It could also alter the quality of the light plants use for photosynthesis, damage the ozone layer, and kick off extreme weather in unexpected locations around the world. An increase in local reservoirs could even allow for diseases like malaria to spread. Then comes the whole conversation surrounding its political ramifications.

According to the Harvard Environmental Law Review, the direct cost of solar geoengineering the Earth—including the collection of the precursor materials for aerosols, putting them into the sky, monitoring, and so on—would be as low as several billion dollars a year. In short, any country with a dedicated air force could probably pull the scheme off by deploying planes in the upper atmosphere.

“Imagine if India started pumping sulphur into the atmosphere only to see a huge drought hit Pakistan: two nuclear powers, already at odds, with one convinced the other is harming its people,” The New Yorker noted. “Or maybe it’s China—driven by a series of summers like the one it just endured—that starts down this road, and it’s India that suddenly faces unrelenting floods. These two nations also share a militarised border, and a series of overlapping international alliances.”

According to Frank Biermann, a political scientist at Utrecht University, no existing governance system can decide on a move like solar geoengineering. “You’d have to take decisions on duration, on the degree—and if there are conflicts—‘we want a little more here, a little less here’—all these need adjudication,” the expert told the publication, adding that the UN Security Council would be a problematic governing body in this case.

“Anything can be blocked by the veto of five of the most polluting countries. Some kind of governance by the major powers? You’d need the agreement of the US, Russia, China, India, and there’s no chance of that. The small countries? The people who want this talk about consultation, but not co-decision.” Ultimately, Biermann believes that governance has to come first before implementing initiatives that have unchecked global effects. On these terms, it’s worth noting that idea may not ever get off the ground as it would require everyone to sign off on it.

“If you don’t know what to do with such technology, don’t develop it,” Biermann concluded.

Solar geoengineering or total destruction

In 2021, Harvard scientists planned a preliminary solar geoengineering test in Sweden—which was shut down almost immediately, with activist groups writing a letter that even Greta Thunberg signed. The following year, more than 60 policy experts and scientists wrote an open letter stating that the technology could be potentially dangerous and should be banned by governments.

“Solar geoengineering deployment cannot be governed globally in a fair, inclusive, and effective manner,” the letter read. “We therefore call for immediate political action from governments, the United Nations and other actors to prevent the normalisation of solar geoengineering as a climate policy option.”

Despite such opposition however, in October 2022, the White House announced a five-year research plan to assess the feasibility of solar geoengineering—thereby pushing the idea out of the realm of science fiction. “Sunlight reflection has the potential to safeguard the livelihoods of billions of people, and it’s a sign of the White House’s leadership that they’re advancing the research so that any future decisions can be rooted in science not geopolitical brinkmanship,” Chris Sacca, founder of the climate tech investment fund Lowercarbon Capital, told CNBC at the time.

Meanwhile, Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati—a small island nation that has already been greatly affected by the rise of sea levels—told The New Yorker that solar geoengineering is a “prime example of our arrogance in our capacity to shape nature to our whims with technology. It should not be the answer to a disaster which we have caused and now seek to remedy.”

Yet, Tong added: “Geoengineering as a possible solution to this catastrophe will definitely become the only option of last resort if we as a global community continue on the path we have been going. There will be a point when it has to be either geoengineering or total destruction.”

Scientists are toilet-training cows to combat climate change

It’s your fever dream but also a coveted way to tackle climate change. Collaborating with Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health and Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), a group of researchers have found a solution to reduce the environmental damage caused by livestock waste: toilet-training cows.

Farmed cattle are known for their notorious contribution to greenhouse gas emissions—producing roughly 66 to 88 pounds of faeces and 8 gallons of urine each day. When cows are kept outdoors, as in the case of New Zealand and Australia where they are free to roam and relieve themselves at their own leisure, the nitrogen from their urine breaks down into the soil. This results in the production of two toxic substances: nitrate and nitrous oxide.

While nitrate from these urine patches bleeds into lakes, rivers and aquifers, nitrous oxide emits into the environment as a long-lasting greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The former pollutes water bodies and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and toxic algae while the latter accounts for about 12 per cent of New Zealand’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

On the flip side, when cows are sheltered in barns—like in Europe and North America—the practice results in the production of yet another polluting gas: ammonia. This by-product is produced when the nitrogen from cow urine mixes with faeces on the barn floor. Confining cows in such spaces could also be detrimental to their wellbeing in general. On the quest to strike a balance between their personal health and our planet’s, scientists decided to test and dispel a common myth surrounding cattle.

In a study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology, researchers proved that cows can be taught how to control their defecation or urination, just like human babies. “Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?” said Doctor Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the FBN, in a press release. In their project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the scientists applied principles from behavioural psychology to train young cattle to urinate in a particular place using a procedure called ‘backward chaining’.

In phase one, a total of 16 calves were confined in a latrine pen and rewarded with an electrolyte mixture or crushed barley when they urinated. This established the pen as an ‘ideal’ place to excrete. The calves were then placed in an alley outside and rewarded for entering the pen and urinating in the same place. If they began excreting in the alley, they were discouraged with a ‘deterrent’. “We first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” Langbein said in the press release. “We thought this would punish the animals, but they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”

The calves were trained in this procedure—which the scientists have conveniently named “MooLoo training”—for 45 minutes every other day. After 15 days of training, 11 out of the 16 calves involved in the experiment were successfully “MooLoo trained.” Majority of them also learned the skill within 20 to 25 urinations—quicker than the time it usually takes to toilet train three to four year-old children.

“In a few years all cows will go to a toilet,” Langbein summed up. However, scaling this method for large-scale application in the agricultural industry involves two main challenges, which the scientists are planning to focus on in the coming stages of the project. First up is the automatic detection of urination in the latrine pen to deliver treats without human intervention. Optimal locations and number of latrine pens are the next hurdle. The latter is a particularly challenging issue in countries like New Zealand, where cattle spend most of their time in open paddocks rather than in barns.

“Part of our future research will require understanding how far cattle are willing to walk to use a pen,” the researchers wrote in a column for The Conversation. “And more needs to be done to understand how to best use this technique with animals in both indoor and outdoor farming contexts.” But what they do know for sure is that the MooLoo technique can significantly reduce the environmental impact of farmed cattle. “The more urine we can capture, the less we’ll need to reduce cattle numbers to meet emissions targets—and the less we’ll have to compromise on the availability of milk, butter, cheese and meat from cattle,” they concluded.

Dinosaurs may have excreted their way into extinction but the odds of history repeating itself is finally at an all-time low.