Climate change is a real problem. Man-made emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are the main reason for an unprecedented increase in average global temperatures at a rate never before seen in the Earth’s geological record. The problem is so bad that any attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may be too little and too late. And so a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has proposed a radically new solution: bubbles… in space.
That’s right, bubbles in space. The thinking is based on two problem areas. One is that as we seek to reduce or even eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in the future, the damage we have already done through over a century of advanced industrialization has already steered the course of the Earth’s climate trajectory in a bad direction. It can be so bad that even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions altogether tomorrow, we would still have to live with the severe impacts of climate change for decades and even centuries, including continued sea-level rise, more extreme weather events, and disruption to food-producing regions .
Another way to address the problem is to sequester or remove carbon, or somehow limit the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface, such as by releasing aerosols into the atmosphere. The team at MIT argues that this is generally a bad idea because our climate system is so complex and dynamic that introducing artificial factors into the atmosphere itself cannot be reversed.
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That’s why they think of space. The idea is to develop a raft of thin bubble-like membranes. These membranes reflect or absorb a fraction of the sunlight that reaches Earth, literally blocking it. The team argues that if we reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth by just 1.5%, we could completely eliminate the impact of our total greenhouse gas emissions.
Personally, I’m pretty skeptical about this idea. For one, the team has yet to say exactly what these bubbles are made of and how they will be sent to the target location, which is near the Earth-Sun system’s first LaGrange point. They must maintain the stability of the raft by balancing the gravitational forces of the earth, the sun, and probably the other planets as well. They also have to deal with the radiation pressures of the sun itself, not to mention the constant rain from the solar wind and micrometeoroids.
Blocking even one percent of the sun’s radiation would require a raft thousands of miles wide, making it the largest structure we’ve ever launched into space. So there’s just a tiny technical challenge to make this thing work.
And while the MIT researchers claim that this space-based approach is fully reversible, it is only in a sense. Yes, if we decide the raft is a bad idea or doesn’t do what we hoped we could just levitate it or disassemble it. But Earth’s climate is a complex system with many intricate feedback loops embedded within it that we don’t fully understand. What would be the overall effects of blocking sunlight by one and a half percent for years, decades, and centuries? What effect would this have on the biosphere, or the level of cloud cover, or the evaporation of the oceans, or thousands of other considerations? Do we really think we have the technical and intellectual capacity to do this right?
After all, developing a solution that reduces the amount of sunlight that hits Earth does nothing to address the underlying problem, which is that we are causing serious damage to Earth’s climate and biosphere. If we have cover – pun intended – to do what we want, why stop polluting or emitting greenhouse gases when we can just add more bubbles to the raft? We need to address these fundamental issues, not just cover them up.
The team admits there is still work to be done, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, after years of work, the realities of the complexity of this proposed solution… burst its bubble.
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