Is ‘cloud brightening’ an answer to the climate crisis?

Earth Day 2024 has come and gone and in the last year there were some accomplishments.

At COP28 in Dubai a deal was finally reached to globally transition from fossil fuels, which will require rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse emissions. Key participants agreed to the goal of tripling renewables and doubling efficiency.

And last year 1.2 million EVs were sold in the U.S. and global sales of EVs rose 31%.

The past year also saw consecutive monthly record-breaking heat. In April, Jonathan Watts writing for the Guardian, reported that over the past 12 months the average global temperatures have been 1.58 C degrees above the pre-industrial levels. The Paris climate goal of 1.5 C. no longer seems viable. These sharp increases in temperatures surprised many scientists.

Gavin Schmidt, who is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, said that temperatures are being broken each month by up to 0.2 C.

“It is humbling and worrying to admit that no year has confounded climate scientists’ predictive capabilities more than 2023,” he said.

While there are several factors that may have influenced this record heat, including EL Niño and increased solar activity, Schmidt stated that they were not enough to account for this level of warming.

“If the anomaly does not stabilize by August-a reasonable expectation based on previous El Nino events-then the world will be in uncharted territory,” he added.

Fifty-seven companies are responsible for 80% of all emissions. But as Watts recently reported, Saudi Aramco chief Amin Nasser, at an industry conference stated, “We should abandon the fantasy of phasing out oil and gas.”

Four months before, at COP28, Saudi Arabia and all other countries had agreed to the phase-out.

A recent New Scientist article by James Woodford reviewed the devastating effects that increased heating will have on global supply chains, including high-latitude countries with cooler climates, predicting the worst financial crisis the world has seen. Dabo Guan of Tsinghua University in Beijing and his colleagues modeled economic risk posed by three climate scenarios. The low emissions scenario found a 25% increase in heat wave days by 2060, resulting in total global annual losses of $3.75 trillion. The highest emission scenario saw a 100% increase in heat wave days, more than 1.1 million extra deaths, and a total annual loss of $25 trillion. The total global earnings for 2023 were $100 trillion.

“No one can be immune from climate change,” says Guan, adding that “climate change events could have impacts that dwarf any previous financial crisis.”

Manfred Lenzen of the University of Sydney, Australia cautioned that “The world economy is so interconnected that really no one can escape the implications of major disasters elsewhere.”

These predictions of drastic heating and its drastic global financial effects may require drastic solutions. We are simply not moving fast enough on fossil fuel reduction. Deliberately intervening in our planet’s climate, although highly controversial, is being researched.

One idea that is showing promise is cloud brightening or cloud marine engineering (MCB), which works to increase cloud cover, leading to cooling. It is a way to buy time.

The technique is being used in Australia to reduce bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. The idea is to use aerosol injections to produce a brightening effect on a cloud, which in turn increases the amount of sunlight reflected into space.

A recent experiment in Hawaii measured the natural aerosol injection from the eruption of the Kilauea volcano to study the interactions between natural aerosols, clouds and climate. Researchers led by Dr. Ying Chen of the University of Birmingham, found that cloud cover increased by up to 50% during eruptions, resulting in significant cooling.

In the U.S., scientists from the University of Washington carried out an experiment in April spraying non-polluting salt aerosols off the coast of California. It is not easy. The particles must be the right size, about the thickness of a human hair.

We need a lot more research and we need to reach the clouds to see if this will work. If it does work, it may be the most benign of the geoengineering alternatives being considered.

But as Dr. Ying Chen said, “Our findings show that marine cloud brightening could be more effective as a climate intervention than climate models have previously suggested. Of course, while it could be useful, MCB does not address the underlying causes of global warming from greenhouse gases produced by human activity. It should therefore be regarded as a painkiller rather than a solution.”

Published on May 6, 2024, in the Albuquerque Journal.

© Judith Polich. All Rights Reserved. May be republished with author’s written consent and proper attribution.

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