As the planet appears ready to blaze past the original 1.5 degrees Celsius cap on temperature rise set by the Paris Climate Agreement, the unthinkable is being considered — solar bioengineering. Otherwise known as dimming the sun, it’s an insane prospect with unknown and potentially devastating ramifications, yet the likelihood that such technology will be utilized in the coming decades is rising right along with global temperatures. Of course, such a drastic measure should be both unnecessary and completely preventable through transitions to renewable energy as well as by implementing immediate degrowth in the Global North. Instead, climate denial continues as profit margins and excessive lifestyles refuse to give way, regardless of the consequences.
By continuing down this path of business-as-usual those in power are risking not only the ability of the planet to support future business, but perhaps even its ability to support life itself.
While energy transitions are happening, they aren’t happening fast enough. And while degrowth may be getting more attention amongst policymakers, billionaires like Bill Gates appear poised to do whatever they can to keep consumers ravenous for high-profit goods regardless of the corresponding environmental costs. As such, the New Yorker reported that NASA scientist James Hansen, often referred to as “the Paul Revere of global warming,” has predicted that Earth will break the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit much sooner than 2030. The publication quoted him as saying, “Even a little futz of an El Niño — like the tropical warming in 2018-19, which barely qualified as an El Niño — should be sufficient for record global temperature. A classical, strong El Niño in 2023-24 could push global temperature to about +1.5°C.”
The consequences are hardly arbitrary. At 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we are already seeing death and destruction as islands sink, superstorms and extreme hurricanes cause massive flooding in some areas while droughts dry up whole bodies of water in others, and the forests we desperately need for oxygen and carbon sequestration burn to the ground. As we leap over 1.5 degrees, the repercussions become exponentially worse. Not only will entire island systems be swept underwater by rising sea levels, but mainland coastal areas will flood as well, affecting between 4.2 million and 13.1 million people in the U.S. alone. Storms will continue to worsen. Heat waves will continue to increase along with droughts. And coral reefs will disappear altogether — along with the life they sustain.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine biologist with the University of Queensland, is quoted in NPR as saying: "Something around 50 percent of the shallow water corals were killed literally over a couple of months, in some cases over a couple of weeks. If you extend that out into the future, we'll get to a point where the damage overwhelms the ability of corals to bounce back." He likened the present situation to staring down the barrel of a gun. In fact, 70 to 90 percent of the world's coral reefs are expected to die off with a 1.5-degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures, while a 2-degree rise could kill more than 99 percent of them.
It’s under these circumstances that dimming the sun is beginning to look like a terrifying inevitability — something we have to do out of desperation as the planet becomes uninhabitable. However, pinning the world’s last hopes on solar bioengineering instead of structural change demonstrates not just a severe lack of foresight and planning, but more than likely, a ploy by billionaires and the fossil fuel industry to continue raking in the profits hand over fist while avoiding the full costs of the emissions that make them that money.
“In a few years, people like the Koch family will jump on solar dimming. They’ll say, ‘Listen, we don’t have to reduce emissions so brutally and so quickly, because we have a Plan B for the next thirty or forty years.’ It’s the same as climate denial, in that it helps people have doubts,” political scientist Frank Biermann, who was one of the original “senior scholars” to sign a letter demanding the use of such technology be prohibited, told the New Yorker.
So, what exactly is it? Solar bioengineering is essentially shooting sulfur, or a similar element, into the stratosphere in order to reflect some of the sun’s heat away from the Earth. In principle, this should cool the planet in the same way that a major volcanic eruption does. But such eruptions can also have dire consequences. The “year without a summer” came after Mount Tambora blew in 1815, causing widespread hunger in the northern hemisphere. Even worse, an eruption in Iceland in the year 536 resulted in 18 months of darkness and a famine that lasted for years.
Indeed, spraying our skies with sulfur could interrupt photosynthesis and cause unfathomable starvation, potentially leading to far more deaths than is expected from climate change. It’s also unpredictable and could do good in some areas while wreaking havoc in others, which could lead to skirmishes around the globe if one country’s solar bioengineering hurts another. There is concern that the ozone layer could be damaged as well. Indeed, untold consequences abound. Theoretically, blotting out the sun could even cause severe harm to human health in the form of lost Vitamin D.
On the other hand, it’s cheap.
Cheaper than switching to renewables. Cheaper than degrowth. Cheaper than lost profits. Cheaper than billionaires and the fossil fuel industry paying the full cost of doing business. Ultimately, dimming the sun is likely to be sold to us as the only solution to a problem that they created and continue to profit from.
Image credit: Jongsun Lee via Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.