This week, David G. Victor is answering questions submitted by readers about climate change and the potential role of geoengineering in counteracting the effects of global warming.
With predictions about climate change growing direr every week, geoengineering (which includes everything from fertilizing the oceans in an attempt to cajole great blooms of carbon-sucking phytoplankton to spraying particles into the upper atmosphere to make the earth more reflective) is starting to look more attractive. But the science still lags behind the ambitions. To understand how such schemes would work in practice -- and what their consequences would be -- it is time to start small-scale field tests.
Each year, the effects of climate change are coming into sharper focus. Barely a month goes by without some fresh bad news: ice sheets and glaciers are melting faster than expected, sea levels are rising more rapidly than ever in recorded history, plants are blooming earlier in the spring, water supplies and habitats are in danger, birds are being forced to find new migratory patterns.
The odds that the global climate will reach a dangerous tipping point are increasing. Over the course of the twenty-first century, key ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream, could shift radically, and thawing permafrost could release huge amounts of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Such scenarios, although still remote, would dramatically accelerate and compound the consequences of global warming. Scientists are taking these doomsday scenarios seriously because the steady accumulation of warming gases in the atmosphere is forcing change in the climate system at rates so rapid that the outcomes are extremely difficult to predict.
Eliminating all the risks of climate change is impossible because carbon dioxide emissions, the chief human contribution to global warming, are unlike conventional air pollutants, which stay in the atmosphere for only hours or days. Once carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, much of it remains for over a hundred years. Emissions from anywhere on the planet contribute to the global problem, and once headed in the wrong direction, the climate system is slow to respond to attempts at reversal. As with a bathtub that has a large faucet and a small drain, the only practical way to lower the level is by dramatically cutting the inflow. Holding global warming steady at its current rate would require a worldwide 60-80 percent cut in emissions, and it would still take decades for the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to stabilize.
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