- Australian climate experts warn that human civilisation could end by 2050
- Stanford scientists believe releasing more CO2 could help us limit climate change
- Cambridge scientists are exploring the idea of refreezing the poles
- Harvard and Yale scientists propose dimming the sun to reduce global temperatures
- Gene-edited super plants could play a key role in fighting climate change
- Are we desperate enough to actually try one of these extreme ideas?
Climate change has become one of the most hotly contested topics of our time, fuelled by the increased frequency of natural disasters and unprecedented levels of pollution. Nowadays, it seems that every other day there’s a new story chronicling the horrors of climate change and bringing grim predictions about what awaits us if we don’t do something about it soon. With that in mind, this latest scenario doesn’t come as a surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. Its prognosis: total collapse of human civilisation.
Australian climate experts warn that human civilisation could end by 2050
Published by Australian climate experts at the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, the new report claims that unless we do something about climate change, we could be looking at an additional 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050, which could bring about the end of human civilisation.
According to the report, this predicted rise in global temperatures would lead to the destruction of several ecosystems, including coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, and the Arctic. Devastating wildfires, heatwaves, and droughts would rage across North America, while Asian rivers would be greatly reduced. Around 35 per cent of the global land area and 55 per cent of the global population would be exposed to lethal heat conditions for more than 20 days per year. The insect population would all but disappear, and nearly one third of the world’s surface would turn to desert, displacing more than a billion people. Food and water would become scarce, eventually leading to armed conflict between nations over resources – maybe even nuclear war.
Over the years, a number of potential solutions for climate change have been proposed. Unfortunately, none of them have proven particularly effective so far, leaving our society on the path to extinction. So, isn’t there anything that can be done to prevent this scenario from becoming a reality? Actually, there might be. It’s often said that desperate times call for desperate measures, and some of the ideas we’re about to present here would certainly qualify as such.
Stanford scientists believe releasing more CO2 could help us limit climate change
On May 11, 2019, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, a research outpost of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, reported that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have exceeded 415 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history. What makes this announcement particularly alarming is that this figure is more than 100 ppm higher than at any point during the past 800,000 years. So, knowing what we know about carbon dioxide and its role in climate change, it goes without saying that adding even more of it to the atmosphere would be a bad thing, right? Well, not necessarily.
According to scientists at Stanford University, releasing more CO2 could actually help us limit climate change, rather than make it worse. While the idea sounds rather counterintuitive at first, there’s some solid reasoning behind it. Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas; there’s also methane, or CH4. Although its concentration in the air is much lower than that of carbon dioxide, at 1.86 parts per million, methane warms the planet 84 times as much as CO2 across 20 years, and 28 times as much across 100 years. Another problem is that methane concentration in the atmosphere has increased by 150 per cent from pre-industrial times, and this trend is expected to continue in the future.
However, methane’s chemical makeup offers a potential solution. When methane reacts with oxygen, it produces carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy in the process. It’s a naturally occurring reaction, and if we could find a way to create an industrial process that could accelerate it, we could slow down global warming significantly. Even though converting all of the methane in the atmosphere produced by human activities would add an additional 8.2 billion metric tons of CO2, it would still reduce global warming by 15 per cent because CO2 is a less powerful greenhouse gas than methane. “That would buy us time to address the more difficult set of carbon dioxide sources,” says Rob Jackson, the study's lead author. However, there’s a long way to go before that becomes possible, as the proposal is still only in the concept stage.
Cambridge scientists are exploring the idea of refreezing the poles
Cambridge University recently announced the launch of a major new research centre called the Centre for Climate Repair, which will be tasked with exploring radical approaches to combating climate change. Many scientists believe that current approaches won’t be enough to stop global warming on their own and that more extreme ideas will be required to save our planet. “What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years,” says Professor Sir David King, the government's former chief scientific adviser, who coordinates the initiative.
A part of Cambridge University's Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative, the centre is the first of its kind in the world, and it could help us significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions if successful. “This really is one of the most important challenges of our time, and we know we need to be responding to it with all our efforts,” says Dr Emily Shuckburgh, who leads the initiative.
Among several approaches the scientists will be working on, refreezing the Earth’s poles could be the most promising one. The idea revolves around sucking up seawater with unscrewed wind-powered ships and pumping it up to tall masts through very fine nozzles. This would produce tiny particles of salt, which would then be sprayed into the atmosphere and injected into the clouds above the poles. The salt would make clouds more widespread and enable them to reflect more heat, cooling the areas below them.
Such large-scale modifications of the Earth’s weather patterns are known as geoengineering, and they’ve been criticised in the past for being potentially harmful to the planet. However, as it becomes painfully obvious that we may not be able to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in time with conventional means, geoengineering could turn out to be our last resort, however risky it may be.
Harvard and Yale scientists propose dimming the sun to reduce global temperatures
Another interesting idea that involves geoengineering was recently put forward by researchers from Harvard and Yale, who believe that we may be able to cool the Earth by releasing millions of tonnes of sulphate particles into the stratosphere, limiting the amount of sunlight that reaches the planet’s surface.
Best of all, it wouldn’t even cost that much. According to the scientists’ calculations, the entire program would cost approximately $2-2.5 billion per year, a rather insignificant sum compared to the $500 billion spent on green technologies annually. The only problem is that we still don’t have the technology to make it happen. At this point, there’s no aircraft in existence capable of carrying tonnes of particles up to a 20-kilometre altitude, which would be necessary if we want the particles to remain in the atmosphere for a year or more. If done with existing commercial jets, the particles would fall out of the sky in a matter of days.
So, to make this program a reality, we’d first need to develop a new type of aircraft capable of such feats. Due to lower air density at this altitude, the new aircraft would need much larger wings and two additional engines. Gernot Wagner from Harvard University, one of the scientists working on the idea, estimates that the program would reduce global warming by 0.1 degrees Celsius per year, or 1.5 degrees in its first 15 years.
Gene-edited super plants could play a key role in fighting climate change
Plants are naturally good at sucking up CO2, concentrating it, and turning it into useful materials like oxygen and sugar. But what if we could improve this ability even further to allow plants to store even more carbon dioxide in their roots? That’s the idea behind the Ideal Plant project, which aims to use gene editing to turn plants into a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change.
Led by Dr Joanne Chory, one of the world’s leading botanists, the project is exploring the idea of improving plants’ natural ability to store carbon by splicing their genes with a new compound. The captured carbon would then be transferred into the soil through the roots and kept there. In theory, this could allow plants to remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow down climate change. “We have to find a way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and I think plants are the only way to do that affordably,” says Chory.
The project is currently working on nine different agricultural crops, including wheat, soybeans, corn, and cotton, trying to enhance their root systems and increase the production of suberin, which is key to their ability to store more carbon. The scientists are also in the process of negotiating with several seed companies about the possibility of introducing these genetically modified plants on farms around the world. According to Chory, their solution has the potential to remove as much as 46 per cent human-caused CO2 emissions from the atmosphere per year.
Are we desperate enough to actually try one of these extreme ideas?
Climate change is now one of the biggest existential threats to the future of humanity. Over the years, a number of measures designed to reduce our society’s greenhouse gas emissions have been introduced. However, none of them have proven particularly effective, and our emissions continue to rise. At this rate, it seems only a matter of time before we pass the point of no return, which has gotten scientists thinking about some more extreme ideas for fighting climate change.
Converting methane into carbon dioxide, refreezing the Earth’s poles, dimming the sun, creating genetically modified super plans; most of these ideas sound like they came straight out of a science fiction movie. Nevertheless, they’re based on good science and might even actually work. However, there are still a number of unknowns, such as the fact that we don’t know exactly how they would affect the planet and whether there would be any unintended consequences. As such, they should be viewed only as a last resort, a last-ditch attempt when all other measures have failed. While reducing greenhouse gas emissions is still our best bet to reverse the effects of climate change, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore other options – just in case.