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Can Crazy Techno Schemes Actually Save Us from Climate Change?

From blocking out the sun with "space shields" to fertilizing the oceans with carbon-consuming algae, will the magic of science save us?

Temperatures are rising, ice caps are melting, seas are swelling and if we don't do something soon (yesterday?), we're sure to find ourselves huddled together on a mountaintop in Utah, a little place we will lovingly refer to as "dry land."

As much as we all love island living, most of us would rather see our planet and civilization saved from the man-made catastrophe called global warming. There is no dearth of ideas floating around with regards to how to make this happen.

One wide-ranging approach involves the application of climate geo-engineering technologies, which aims, says climate scientists Tim Lenton and Naomi Vaughn of the U.K.'s Tyndall Center, "to rectify the Earth's current radiative imbalance." Cooling the world, that is, either by employing shiny materials and cloud cover to reflect away sunlight, or by locking up greenhouse gases so they can't release into the atmosphere.

There is something attractive about this approach to solving the climate crisis -- it's high-tech, and it means that we don't have to focus on the real problem: our embarrassingly oversized output of greenhouse gases. Rather than cutting back our energy use, putting an end to carbon-emitting energy production and raising the bar for energy efficiency and generation as a whole, climate geo-engineering proposes to focus on the symptoms of our sickly energy system. Keep the greenhouse gases flowing -- we can sweep them up later, and in the meantime cool the planet with the magic of science.

There are some real gems that have emerged from geo-engineering research. Albedo modification, for example, involves increasing the reflectivity of the earth's surface. The proposed methods for increasing the Earth's albedo range from simple projects like painting roofs and roads white, to more grandiose schemes like stretching massive sheets of reflective material across the world's deserts and a University of California, Irvine plan to cultivate giant monocultures of shiny crops. Blocking out the sun is another popular idea, and scientists have proposed doing so by injecting water vapor or sulphate aerosol clouds into the atmosphere, or simply launching massive arrays of "space shields" into the stratosphere.

In the carbon-sequestration category you'll find the more traditional practice of reforestation, as well as efforts to fertilize the ocean with iron in order to promote the growth of carbon-consuming plankton and algae. Researchers in Washington and California have come up with a new idea that involves baling up crop residue (like corn and wheat stalks) and sinking them in the ocean, and green investor Vinod Khosla has been pouring millions into a newfangled "Calera" cement made of carbon captured from the CO2-emitting power plants.

Clearly, there are environmental consequences and huge financial costs that come along with most of these methods, and carrying out a large-scale geo-engineering effort is an unlikely prospect. But the scientific community is still enamored with the idea of taking this rather godlike approach to mitigating climate change.

And there is a good reason why: some of these plans -- though not yet technologically feasible -- might actually work. It has been calculated that stratospheric aerosol injections, for example, have the potential to make a real difference in balancing out the impact of CO2's radiative effects, and Calera cement, if adopted by the construction industry, promises to pull billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, counteracting the emissions produced to make conventional cement.

But despite their willingness to invest brainpower in the exploration of geo-engineering options, most scientists agree that the climate crisis cannot be solved with climate geo-engineering alone, and that putting an end to global warming begins with dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. A survey published by the Independent showed that over half of 80 "international specialists in climate science" agree that geo-engineering is viable only as a "backup plan" for addressing climate change.

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