Dimming the Sun to Cool the Planet Is a Desperate Idea, Yet We’re Inching Toward It

By Bill McKibben
The New Yorker
November 22, 2022

The scientists who study solar geoengineering don’t want anyone to try it. But climate inaction is making it more likely.

If we decide to “solar geoengineer” the Earth—to spray highly reflective particles of a material, such as sulfur, into the stratosphere in order to deflect sunlight and so cool the planet—it will be the second most expansive project that humans have ever undertaken. (The first, obviously, is the ongoing emission of carbon and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.) The idea behind solar geoengineering is essentially to mimic what happens when volcanoes push particles into the atmosphere; a large eruption, such as that of Mt. Pinatubo, in the Philippines, in 1992, can measurably cool the world for a year or two. This scheme, not surprisingly, has few public advocates, and even among those who want to see it studied the inference has been that it would not actually be implemented for decades. “I’m not saying they’ll do it tomorrow,” Dan Schrag, the director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, who serves on the advisory board of a geoengineering-research project based at the university, told my colleague Elizabeth Kolbert for “Under a White Sky,” her excellent book on technical efforts to repair environmental damage, published last year. “I feel like we might have thirty years,” he said. It’s a number he repeated to me when we met in Cambridge this summer.

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