One of Britain’s leading astronomers has said that if plans to curb carbon dioxide emissions fail, the only way to buy time and stop climate change would be to ‘hack the planet’ through geoengineering.
Astronomer royal Lord Rees of Ludlow said during the annual British Science Festival in Newcastle that geoengineering, although controversial, might help save the planet. He is pessimistic that measures to tackle climate change will be effective within the next 20 years, as carbon dioxide levels have reached 400 parts per million (ppm) and are set to increase even more, amplifying global warming.
“If the effect is strong, and the world consequently seems on a rapidly warming trajectory into dangerous territory, there may be a pressure for ‘panic measures’. These would have to involve a Plan B – being fatalistic about continuing dependence on fossil fuels, but combating its effects by some form of geoengineering”, said Rees.
The plan B suggested by Rees might include launching mirrors into space, triggering algal blooms in the oceans and seeding clouds.
“Geoengineering would be an utter political nightmare: not all nations would want to adjust the thermostat the same way. There could be unintended side effects. Regional weather patterns may change”, he said.
He added that such measures would only buy time but will not stop the warming trend.
“The warming would return with a vengeance if the countermeasures were ever discontinued; and other consequences of rising CO2 – especially the deleterious effects of ocean acidification – would be unchecked.”
Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr said Rees was right about unpredictability and side effects of geoengineering, “Yet [he] advances it as a last resort, despite the obvious, much safer things we can do now.”
Lord Rees is also leading the “doomsday list” initiative, working with other prominent scientists and engineers, such as cosmologist Stephen Hawking, former government chief scientist Lord May of Oxford and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn.
The team are working to compile a list of catastrophes and events that could threaten humankind and the planet to be presented to politicians and the public. It is thought the list will include acts of bioterrorism, cyber attacks and pandemics caused by global air travel.