JOHN NAISH reveals how scientists are working to stop global warming

Could a man-made ‘volcano’ save the planet? JOHN NAISH reveals some of the VERY wacky ideas top scientists are working on to stop global warming

  • The world’s top scientists are working to reduce the impact of climate change
  • Engineers want to create a volcanic explosion to cloud our skies as a sun shield
  • Australian politicians propose a cull of camels to stop the rise of global warming 

Climate-change activists are once again warning of eco-Armageddon if we don’t mend our global-warming ways.

In a dramatic, opening speech at the UN climate talks in Poland this week, Sir David Attenborough struck a doomsday note when he told delegates: ‘If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.’

But the truth is we’ve proved pretty resistant to such messages before. We may make a few minor adjustments to our lives, but on the whole we carry on burning planet-warming fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases regardless of the dire consequences.

David Attenborough spoke at the COP24 climate change summit in Poland this week. He warned of the ‘collapse of our civilisations’ at a UN climate talk

Which is why scientists are formulating a host of ‘geoengineering’ emergency Plan Bs to try to safeguard our planet by manipulating the climate.

They include creating fake volcanic explosions to cloud our skies, moving the Earth further from the Sun — and even shrinking humankind so that we create far fewer greenhouse gases.

The projects sound like the stuff of comic-book fiction, but the science is serious. So could one of these schemes ever seriously come to our rescue? 

An engineering team part-funded by Bill Gates of Microsoft has announced it is seeking ways to dim the sun by mimicking the effects of a huge volcanic eruption.

The Harvard University scientists hope to prove that by spraying tiny particles into the stratosphere, they could reduce global warming by reflecting some of the Sun’s rays back into space before they hit the Earth.

Engineers want to to dim the sun by mimicking the effects of a huge volcanic eruption. The chemical clouds would cool the planet by blocking the sun’s solar rays. This means we could prevent some of the worst effects of climate change [File photo]

The experiment aims to replicate what happened naturally in 1991 when Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines and threw 20 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere.

The solar ray-blocking chemical clouds cooled the planet by about 0.5c for 18 months. If such a reduction were sustained, it could prevent some of the worst effects of climate change, saving Arctic ice and coral reefs, and protecting low-lying communities from floods.

The $3 million ‘stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment’ (Scopex) outlined by the Harvard team and scheduled for early next year, involves sending an airship 12 miles above the south-west United States to release small plumes of up to 1kg of chalk dust (calcium carbonate) to observe how it scatters sunlight and changes the chemistry of the stratosphere. 

They hope it could prove a ‘remarkably inexpensive’ way of cooling the planet, costing some £2 billion a year.

As global warming takes hold, water from melting Antarctic glaciers threatens to inundate millions of people living in low-lying areas such as islands and coastal areas. The answer could be to build a giant wall [File photo]

According to David Keith, a member of the team, ‘it would be crazy not to research it’ after the success indicated by computer models.

However, British scientists warn that the strategy would disrupt global rainfall, causing drought and famine in large parts of the world.

Piers Forster, a professor of climate physics at Leeds University, fears that up to 4.1 billion people could be harmed by changes in rain patterns. ‘The most striking example of a downside would be the complete drying-out of central Africa,’ he says. 

Believe it or not, shifting Earth to a cooler spot away from the Sun has been seriously considered by Nasa scientists. Even more outlandish is their suggestion that this could be achieved by diverting comets into the direction of our home planet.

Greg Laughlin, a professor of astronomy at Yale University, says scientists could carefully direct a comet or asteroid so that it sweeps just past us — and its gravitational pull would spin Earth further out into the solar system.

An Oxford University philosopher has made an even more radical proposal that we should genetically engineer our children to be much smaller, so that they eat less, like Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompas, above [File photo]

‘The technology is not at all far-fetched,’ he maintains. ‘It involves the same techniques that people now suggest could be used to deflect asteroids or comets heading towards Earth. We don’t need raw power to move Earth, we just require delicacy of planning and manoeuvring.’

Fellow believers say the plan could add another six billion years to the lifetime of our planet — effectively doubling its working life.

However, critics have attacked the plan in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science, arguing that even a tiny miscalculation would cause a collision so catastrophic that it would destroy all life bar a few microbes.

What’s more, if Earth were pushed from its current position the Moon may be knocked out of orbit, too, drifting off into space, further upsetting our climate by its effect on the ocean currents which regulate the climate (transporting cold water from the poles to the tropics and vice versa) and tides. 

An Oxford University philosopher has made an even more radical proposal that we should genetically engineer our children to be much smaller, so that they eat less, make fewer demands on the environment and overall emit fewer greenhouse gases.

The cult of the camel

Australian politicians have proposed a camel cull

Could wiping out wildlife help save the planet? 

Australian politicians have made a start by proposing a cull of many of the country’s estimated 1.2 million wild camels as a climate-change solution.

Apparently, a camel produces an estimated 45kg of methane gas a year, which is roughly equivalent to 1.1 tons of carbon dioxide. 

Indeed, almost half of all global methane emissions come from belching grass-munchers such as camels and cattle.

In 2012, Dr Rebecca Roache also suggested we could genetically modify these mini-humans to be ‘greener’ by making them allergic to meat and perhaps dairy, so that we no longer need to breed and farm cattle (a cow produces around 100kg of methane gas per year — which is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).

Further, genetic modification could produce babies with light-reflecting eyes like a cat’s. ‘If everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn’t need so much lighting,’ wrote Dr Roache and colleagues in the journal Ethics, Policy and Environment.

They add: ‘Human engineering deserves further consideration in the debate about climate change.’ So bring on the tiny cat-eyed vegan children! 

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As global warming takes hold, water from melting Antarctic glaciers threatens to inundate millions of people living in low-lying areas such as islands and coastal areas.

Glaciers collapse into the oceans when warm seawater undercuts ice shelves that jut out into the sea. Now American scientists say the answer may be to build a giant wall around the Antarctic.

In a paper in the journal The Cryosphere earlier this year, Michael Wolovick, a glaciologist at Princeton University, argued that building a giant wall in front of ‘at-risk’ areas of glaciers could protect them from collapse by preventing warm seawater from undermining them. 

The only problems are cost and practicality. Engineers have yet to work out how to build such a wall of gigantic proportions, Wolovick admits. Furthermore, finding a country prepared to meet the massive costs involved could prove just as problematic. 

The Greeks have known since the dawn of civilisation that painting houses white reflects the sun’s rays, and keeps buildings pleasantly cool.

The same trick could massively cut carbon emissions in hot countries worldwide, according to researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

They say that replacing non-reflective, dark roofing materials with a white roof on an average sized house would drastically reduce the need for air conditioning and cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 10 metric tons a year.

Indeed, why shouldn’t we paint everything white — and reflect significant amounts of solar energy back into space? Again, scientists are taking this seemingly bizarre idea very seriously.

Some are proposing that we cover the Arctic with white plastic, both to preserve its remaining ice and make up for the loss of reflectiveness caused by massive glaciers melting away.

Another proposal involves filling the ocean with a sun-reflecting foamy, white froth of ‘microbubbles’. The froth would be produced by pumps attached to dams, reservoirs and ocean-going ships, say supporters of the idea.

Give Earth space sunglasses

Plastic lenses could be put on the Earth

Professor Roger Angel at Arizona University, who helped develop and build some of the world’s largest telescopes, believes creating a giant pair of ‘sunglasses’ for the Earth could solve global warming.

His plan involves launching trillions of 2ft-diameter reflective plastic lenses one million miles into space between the sun and Earth (which are 93 million miles apart). The shades, each weighing only 1g, would collectively form a long, cylindrical ‘cloud’ — 100,000 square miles in size — that would ultimately reduce the amount of sunlight hitting Earth by about two per cent.

Professor Angel says the project could be completed within 25 years for ‘a few trillion dollars’, which includes the cost of producing 20 million tons of lenses and blasting them from an enormous cannon (with a barrel 0.6 miles across). 

The only problem is that it would take enormous amounts of energy to produce this froth — which might mean burning up a whole new load of greenhouse gases. 

The world’s forests already absorb masses of carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, converting it into sugar and cellulose and storing it in their roots, trunk and leaves.

So why don’t we breed super-trees through genetic modification that can absorb even more? That’s the idea of American researchers at the Oak Ridge and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories in California. They claim super-trees could lock up several billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. The only problem is, those trees will take decades to grow.

However, Klaus Lackner, a geophysics professor at Columbia University, suggests we manufacture fake trees instead — carbon-sucking machines on sticks to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Of course, someone needs to manufacture all these fake trees, which again will cause more greenhouse-gas production. What’s more, each artificial tree would cost an estimated £20,000. 

Robert Nelson, a senior researcher at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, believes we could cut global warming by spraying cheap, non-toxic salt across the upper troposphere, ten miles above the Earth’s surface. Salt is highly reflective, so could reflect sunlight back into space.

Critics point out, however, that one of the chemical constituents of salt (sodium chloride) is chlorine, and that this may damage the Earth’s ozone layer — as it does in chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) gases in aerosols. 

And when we deplete ozone from the atmosphere, this lets in more of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

PS-  Of course, while the boffins are vying to invent the wackiest ways to rescue our planet, we could all save them a job by insulating our homes properly, walking or cycling whenever possible, and buying less ‘stuff’ generally. Unlike fake volcanoes and genetically modified babies, that doesn’t take rocket science!

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