What if we could just dim the sun a little bit to cool off the planet and undo the effects of climate change indefinitely?
That’s not just a big part of the plot of a few apocalyptic sci-fi stories, including most recently the underrated “Snowpiercer,” which is based on a 1982 French graphic novel, and to a lesser extent “The Matrix” film trilogy.
It’s also an increasingly serious scientific proposal and the subject of a recent paper by Ivy League researchers who say that injecting reflective aerosols into the upper atmosphere could help bring global warming under control without overly severe side-effects.
The broader field of geoengineering — using planet-scale adjustments to shift climate and other natural cycles — is growing in popularity and respectability as a way to help mitigate and prevent the more devastating impacts of climate change.
And while it’s certainly an interesting area of study, it ought to remain purely hypothetical for the foreseeable future.
After all, the primary lesson of climate change is that even seemingly small human interventions on a planetary scale can have massive and rippling consequences that in some cases take years or even decades to understand.
Ice melting in Greenland can slightly increase sea levels in Charleston, for example. Dust from the Sahara can affect rain in the Amazon basin and hurricane formation in the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s not quite the so-called “butterfly effect” — a butterfly flaps its wings and a storm happens on the other side of the globe — but it’s close enough that we ought to be wary about trying to predict and control the impossibly complex ramifications of even a relatively straightforward geoengineering experiment.
In fact, the more we learn about the way our planet’s climate works, the more we learn how incredibly fine-tuned it is.
The geoengineering paper’s authors readily acknowledge that their study was imperfect — it looked at climate effects across broad regions rather than specific ecosystems, ignored political challenges and relied on purely hypothetical data.
Frankly, it’s not very likely that researchers will have enough of a grasp on the real-world challenges of geoengineering in the near future, or at least soon enough to keep climate change from becoming a truly catastrophic phenomenon.
And there’s little guarantee that any amount of study and preparation would make geoengineering safe.
So our best hope remains in significantly cutting carbon emissions, investing in sustainable energy and preparing for the worst impacts of climate change.
That’s easier said than done, of course. In Charleston alone, preparing for higher seas and stronger storms will cost billions.
But if the most viable alternative is spraying a new set of chemicals into the atmosphere to readjust the global thermostat, then we probably ought to be operating under the presumption that there is no alternative.