Imagine a world with balmy, 70 degree weather every single day of the year. Imagine that the sun is shining with only a few picturesque clouds passing by. In a veritable garden of Eden, all varieties of fowls are squawking, warbling and chirping away. Leopards lurk in the shade as lizards bask in the radiant sun.
Alternatively, imagine you are in midtown Manhattan. It is 120 degrees and there is a cloud of toxic soot looming over everything. Even worse, imagine you are snorkeling through the ruins of the city.
We are living under an umbrella of carbon dioxide. Light from the sun passes down, through this umbrella, but the heat radiating from the surface of the Earth lingers, trapped inside. The layer of CO2 absorbs it, then some of the heat shoots off into space. Some of it bounces back down to Earth, warming us. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increases in the thickness of this carbon dioxide umbrella have caused temperatures on the surface of the Earth to rise.
It would be nice to reverse this trend, and the best way to do that would seem to be to stop the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, that might involve curtailing the consumption of carbon fuels, like oil, coal and natural gas. This does not appear to be happening anywhere near fast enough.
Luckily, there is another potential solution to the problem of global warming, part of the range of tools in the wheelhouse of the emerging field of geoengineering. The carbon dioxide isn’t what’s actually heating the Earth. It’s just trapping more of the Sun’s rays. So if we can’t stop those rays from getting trapped by greenhouse gases, why not reflect some of those rays back into space before they even get here?
Climate scientist Paul Crutzen has an idea along that line, and one that is being discussed at this week’s geoengineering summit in Moscow. Crutzen won the Nobel Prize in 1996 for research that pointed to a hole in the ozone layer. Today he’s one of the most significant researchers studying global warming. It is his concern about that issue which has led him to the conclusion that our future may depend on blanketing the atmosphere with farts. Well, not farts exactly, but their most important part: the smelly bits.
Farts are largely comprised of methane, a greenhouse gas. That means that all the cows, pigs and baked bean lovers on Earth are pumping hotter weather right out their butts. But sulfur dioxide, the stinkiest part of a fart, has the power to reflect light from the sun.
Sulfur dioxide is another byproduct of burning fossil fuels that bounces sun rays back into space rather than trapping them. Unfortunately, atmospheric sulfur is a major component of air pollution that also seeds acid rain. So while laws limiting greenhouse gas production stall, laws limiting sulfur dioxide release from industry are passed because making the argument for clean air is easier than arguing for global warming. In response Crutzen says we should make up for that lost reflective sulfur (and then some) by blasting it into the stratosphere, high enough to limit its pollutive properties.
The main benefit of what’s called “solar radiation management” is its low cost. Crutzen estimates that the annual cost of implementing this palliative at around $25-50 billion per year. This is 1/100th the cost of reducing carbon emissions for similar effectiveness. The technique involves delivering a payload of sulfur dioxide into the air, at an altitude of somewhere between 7 and 11 miles. The use of artillery as a delivery method is an option. In other words, cannons could one day be shooting vessels of fart gas into the air. To save the Earth, of course.
As joke-worthy as it is, it’s a serious proposition. The Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, an influential think-tank that deals with a wide range of national concerns, declared on October 4th that it is high time the government starts researching a variety of geoengineering techniques. (An important first step would be replacing the mildly-apocalyptic term “geoengineering” with the more euphemistic term “climate remediation.”) Sulfur dioxide isn’t the only tool at our disposal for sending the Sun’s heat back where it came from. Other options include injecting aerosols into the atmosphere, capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and painting everything white in order to reflect the heat.
All in all, the situation sounds a little like trying to solve a drinking problem by starting to use cocaine. “Well, I really can’t see myself doing without my fifth of whiskey per day, but I do want to stop passing out at bars, so I guess I should just take more uppers.” It helps, but doesn’t get to the root of the problem: If greenhouse gases keep building up, the reflected Sun energy is just going to be trapped again anyway.
We may already be too late for even fart gas to save us. Climate scientists say the danger zone is any scenario where global temperatures rise more than 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or two degrees Celsius. Out of 193 simulated scenarios, climate scientist Joeri Rogelj and colleagues identified only three with desirable outcomes. We are on the brink of global annihilation, and perhaps only a cloud of fart gas in the sky can save us.
Dr. Crutzen, the original proponent of the solar radiation management solution, has coined a new word for the world epoch in which we are living. He calls it the “anthropocene," representing the age of mankind. Dr. Crutzen’s term raises the specter of strange new forces. His word conjures up a vision of a planet utterly controlled by the impacts of human civilization.
The great irony is that humanity’s very influence over the course of nature poses deadly threats, whose full scale remains unknown. It will be impossible fully to judge the effects of this anthropocene epoch for millennia. Not until science is able to study the mud of our time can conclusions be drawn. Unfortunately, that mud may contain the ruins of our cities, lost deep beneath the risen sea. Thanks to, and no thanks to, farts.