It’s too late to stop catastrophic climate change, many people fear. Frequent extreme heat waves, droughts and floods: these are already happening, and most climate experts say they’re likely to get worse.
But what if science and technology could provide a solution?
A group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believes the “worst-case scenario” of a warming planet possibly could be avoided through human ingenuity – namely, the building of frozen “space bubbles” that would prevent some of the sun’s rays from reaching Earth.
“While addressing climate change necessarily requires lowering CO2 emission on the Earth, other approaches such as geo-engineering could supplement such efforts if current mitigation and adaptation measures turned out to be inadequate for reversing the ongoing climate change trends,” the team wrote in May . “In particular, solar geo-engineering – a set of technologies aiming to reflect a fraction of sunlight coming to the Earth – has been theoretically proved to be a valuable solution for supplementing current efforts for CO2 emission reductions.”
The solar geo-engineering idea this team is advancing involves a “raft” of thin, inflatable shields, collectively about the size of Brazil, made of silicone-like materials. They would be constructed in outer space close to the Lagrangian Point – the point where the gravitational forces of the sun and Earth cancel each other out.
The team, which hopes to do more and larger-scale research, says they have successfully tested inflating a bubble shield in outer-space conditions. They argue on a website devoted to their work that “if we deflect 1.8% of incident solar radiation before it hits our planet, we could fully reverse today’s global warming.”
Climate geo-engineering is a contentious subject in the scientific community, for the various proposals could have disastrous unintended consequences. (Preventing some sunlight from reaching Earth, for example, could kill large swaths of crops.) But support for pursuing regulated international geo-engineering projects appears to be increasing.
Pascal Lamy, president of the Paris Peace Forum and the former World Trade Organization director general, recently said a “global effort on geo-engineering could work.”
One key benefit of the “space bubbles” approach, its proponents say, is that it would be reversible. The bubbles could be deflated and moved out of the Lagrangian Point.
Said MIT Senseable City Lab director and project leader Carlo Ratti:
“We believe that advancing feasibility studies of a solar shield to the next level could help us make more informed decisions in the years to come should geo-engineering approaches become urgent.”
— Douglas Perry