11/12/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Techonomy 2012 Asks: Can Geo-Engineering Help Lower the Earth's Temperature?

By Sarah Evelyn Harvey

Just weeks after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the east coast, climate change was on the forefront of everyone's minds at Techonomy 2012 in Tucson, Ariz. In a session about geo-engineering, Harvard physics professor David Keith and Harvard Kennedy School research fellow Andrew Parker talked about the realistic possibility of reflecting sunlight away from the planet to lower the earth's temperature -- and, more pressing, the complicated political implications of this climate change quick-fix.


Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone and David Keith of Harvard University

The technology of geo-engineering is both financially and technically doable, the panelists insisted. All it would take to cut the rate of global warming in half is just two aircrafts emitting 2,000 tons of sulfur into the stratosphere every year. The sulfur counteracts the carbon, allowing coal-reliant nations to maintain carbon emission levels as long as sulfur emissions keep pace.

There are obvious consequences, both environmental and political. First, the only way to have a stable climate in the long run is to cease all emissions. "You could go on forever, and walk further and further along the plank," said Keith. "You keep walking yourself further away from the current climate, and something is going to break catastrophically."

But most terrifying are the political ramifications. There are no international laws regulating geo-engineering, so any nation could start emitting sulfur into the atmosphere. The nations most likely to adopt the sulfur technique are those who most keenly suffer from climate change-related events. The result? Weather warfare.

Consider, for example, what could happen if China decides to launch a geo-engineering campaign, Parker suggested to the audience. Soon after, India suffers an extreme weather event. No one would be able to tell if the natural disaster was caused by the geo-engineering or prior climate conditions, fingers would be pointed - and conflict could ensue.

"Imagine two frat boys fighting in their apartment about where to set the thermostat," said Keith. "I think we urgently need to build up some type of rule."

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