Solar Geoengineering Could Buy Us Time to Get to Net Zero

Solar Geoengineering Could Buy Us Time to Get to Net Zero
A sun halo is seen in the skies above Harare, Zimbabwe, Nov. 15, 2020 (AP photo by Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi).

Whether April is truly the cruelest month, as T.S. Elliott wrote, is up for debate. What is undeniable is the poignancy of springtime in the age of global warming, when each year, the planet bursts forth with life, oblivious to what is in store. As the latest Earth Month draws to a close, it seems natural to take stock of where humanity is now in its struggle against climate change and, just maybe, take solace in a possible lifeline.

The latest assessment reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, make clear what we are up against. The world is on track to badly miss the target set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which calls for holding the rise in average global temperatures above preindustrial-era levels to 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Already, multiple environmental dangers are manifest. They include searing heatwaves, prolonged droughts, violent storms, raging wildfires, melting icecaps, rising seas and looming wildlife extinctions. More alarming still, rising temperatures threaten abrupt tipping points in critical subcomponents of the Earth system, such as a sudden die-back of the Amazon rainforest and a rapid thawing of Arctic permafrost, both of which could take place in sudden bursts, with little forewarning.

Even so, we can’t say we never saw these calamities coming or didn’t know what was at stake. As the environmentalist Gus Speth documents in his recent book “They Knew,” the U.S. government has been aware of the risks of climate change at least since the presidency of Richard Nixon. Nearly 34 years have also passed since NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about what would—and has—come to pass. As he warned legislators in 1988, global warming “is already happening now.” Despite such portents, the United States and the wider world wasted precious decades, rather than taking steps to alter the planet’s trajectory while there was still time to do so at modest cost. Thanks to their delays and half-measures, we are now courting catastrophe.

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