Climate change is a real problem. Emissions of human-caused greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are the primary driver of an unprecedented rise in global average temperatures at a rate never before seen in Earth’s geological record. The problem is so serious that any attempt to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions may be too late and too little. This is how a team based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with a radically new solution: bubbles… in space.
That’s right, bubbles in space. The reflection revolves around two areas of concern. The first is that in trying to reduce or even eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in the future, the damage we have already caused over more than a century of advanced industrialization has already shaped the climate trajectory. of the earth in the wrong direction. It may be so severe that even if we were to completely stop all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, we would still have to live with the severe impacts of climate change for decades or even centuries to come, including continued sea level rise, more extreme weather events, and disruptions in food producing regions.
Another way to solve the problem is to sequester or remove the carbon, or somehow limit the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, for example by releasing aerosols into the atmosphere. The MIT team argues this is generally a bad idea because our climate system is so complex and dynamic that introducing man-made factors into the atmosphere itself is irreversible.
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That’s why they think about space. The idea is to develop a raft of fine bubble-shaped membranes. These membranes will reflect or absorb a fraction of the sunlight reaching the Earth, literally blocking it. The team argues that if the amount of sunlight reaching Earth is reduced by just 1.5%, we could completely eliminate the effects of all our greenhouse gas emissions.
Personally, I am quite skeptical of this idea. For one thing, the team has yet to explain exactly what these bubbles will be made of and how they will be sent to the target location, which is near the first LaGrange point of the Earth-Sun system. They will have to maintain the stability of the raft by balancing the gravitational forces of the Earth, the Sun and probably also the other planets. They will also have to deal with radiation pressure from the Sun itself, not to mention the constant rain from the solar wind and micrometeoroids.
To block even one percent of the Sun’s output would require a raft thousands of miles across, making it the largest structure we’ve ever put into space. So there is only a small engineering challenge to make this thing work.
And while the MIT researchers say this space-based approach is fully reversible, it’s only in a certain sense. Yes, if we decide the raft is a bad idea or doesn’t do what we hoped it would, we can just let it float free or take it apart. But the Earth’s climate is a complex system with many intricate feedback loops built in that we don’t fully understand. What would be the total effects of blocking sunlight by one and a half percent over years, decades, and centuries? What effect would that have on the biosphere or the level of cloud cover or the evaporation of the oceans or thousands of other considerations? Do we really believe that we have the technical and intellectual capacity to do it right?
Finally, developing a solution that reduces the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth does nothing to solve the underlying problem, which is that we are causing serious damage to the Earth’s climate and biosphere. If we have a blanket – pun intended – to do whatever we want, then why should we stop polluting or emitting greenhouse gases if we can just add more bubbles to the raft? We need to address these fundamental issues, not just cover them up.
The team admits there’s still a lot of work to do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, after years of work, the realities of the complexity of this proposed solution…burst their bubble.