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May 14, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Chill Out, Planet Bro

Cooling the planet with Budyko’s Blanket

Somewhere near Seattle, a man is working in a lab, the sole purpose of which is to invent cool shit to make the world better. Take, for example, the laser which fights malaria through tracking and killing female mosquitoes—they’re identified through having a slower wing beat than males—from up to 30 meters away. This man and his lab are something special indeed; a fact which may not be surprising, considering he gained a bachelor’s, two masters’, and a Ph.D. all by age 23.

This man’s name is Nathan Myhrvold, reportedly the smartest man Bill Gates has ever met, and the lab in question is Intellectual Ventures, the base of a company specialising in patenting inventions.

Enter Budyko’s blanket theory. Essentially, this theory is based on the natural phenomenon of volcanic eruptions. In the years after large eruptions–say, Pinatubo 21 years ago or even Taupo nearly 2000 years ago–global temperatures fall measurably. This is due to volcanic excrement being exploded far into the atmosphere, where it binds to water vapour and forms an aerosol cloud, blocking the sun’s rays for about a year. Less sunlight reaches Earth, and we all chill out just a little bit. Now, hold that thought.

In the face of climate change, we have a number of options. We could do nothing, meekly cross our fingers and hope for favourable climate oscillations, a slight change in the Earth’s orbit, or regular volcanic eruptions of massive scale to offset the increasing temperature of our planet (which is occurring, despite what the ACT party would have you believe). We could take a proactive approach, where we get teary and silently promise action during the cinematic ice shelf collapses in Al Gore movies, live vicariously through Lucy Lawless as she battles those evil oil giants, and really become the change we want to see in the world, y’all.

This is not to disparage the work of environmental groups, who indeed have the best possible intentions. But, your average human’s daily emissions from things like driving a car and not recycling your bottles and tins make up barely 2% of our total anthropogenic emissions. While re-using your shopping bags and taking the bus are good things to do, in the greater scheme of things these actions have little effect.

Going vegan and composting your own waste products may be worthwhile endeavours, but the argument over their effectiveness is one which exists on a micro scale. Doing these things will probably make our world a nicer place to live, ignoring the inevitable externality–sanctimony. But to really save the planet, we need to worry about the macro scale. By macro, we are not even speaking about the actions of companies or states. Even if we somehow managed to completely stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the half-life of carbon dioxide means the cold turkey approach wouldn’t be effective for at least a century. We are talking about global systems. This brings us to the third option.

Our third option is to take a pragmatic approach which will actually work, and work right away–this is what Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures have come up with. Remember Budyko’s blanket theory? Well, the IV lab has developed a plan to create it artificially.

Here’s the condensed version: chuck a relatively small amount of sulphur dioxide (just 0.05% of yearly sulphur emissions) 18km up, into the stratosphere. Let atmospheric winds distribute this around the globe creating a ‘blanket’ which reflects sunlight, lowering global temperatures as an eruption’s effluvia does. We do this using a long pipe, elevated by helium balloons, with pumps every 30 meters to maintain pressure. We test it out with small amounts of sulphur first–if it works we continue, if it doesn’t, we stop. We fiddle with the temperature as much or as little as we want, depending on the amount of sulphur we use. Simple, really.

Artificially manufacturing Budyko’s blanket is doable, and incredibly cheap in comparison to the expected cost of climate change—$1.2 trillion per year, according to economist Nicholas Stern’s 2006 findings on the economic impact of climate change—or even in comparison to the cost of Al Gore’s climate change money-go-round: a $300 million public awareness campaign which included the infamous film An Inconvenient Truth. Setting up a basic version of the Budyko’s blanket plan would take barely two years, cost a mere $20 million, and another $10 million a year to operate. That’s just 600 Priuses.

As tends to happen, we humans find ways to fuck things up. Budyko’s blanket is unlikely to be an exception. If we can barely decide multilaterally on issues such as emission caps (see: the Copenhagen Climate Council held in 2009), is there any indication that we can successfully negotiate what we do with the entire stratosphere?  In reality, the likelihood of implementation is slim as the blanket plan has little support from governments. It’s not going to grow economies or provide tax revenue, and the amount of multilateral cooperation required to achieve a workable consensus is possibly insurmountable.

There is also bound to be opposition to this plan; worries have been raised about increased sulphur content leading to reduced rainfall, and increasing the phenomena of acid rain. An 18km stretch of glorified hosepipe is a relatively easy target and if Greenpeace can find a few Japanese whalers in 20 million km2 of southern ocean, I imagine there’d be many ways to halt the sulphur flow should such a measure be desired.

It is not the logistics of the process, but its implications which are the largest stumbling block. If we can emit greenhouse gases until our hearts are content and easily fix the temperature rises this will cause, do we then have a green light on pollution? Will climate change awareness without the threat of a huge negative externality like global temperature rise still have the same effect? Budyko’s blanket would undermine the need for awareness and action, eroding the gains environmentalists have made towards making our planet a nicer one to live in.

Should we even proceed with fiddling with the systems of an entire planet? Messing with the ozone content of the stratosphere is heady stuff. Environmentalists will argue that we are already fiddling with the planet, through wanton pollution from industrialising powers like China, the global carbon factory which is agriculture, and deforestation. Is the answer to meddling really to meddle more?

Ultimately though, it’s a good safety net. It lets us know that if push comes to shove, we can stop climate change if we have to. Budyko’s blanket is a solution which is simple, cheap, controllable, reversible and quick to implement, and one of few ideas that can make people genuinely optimistic about Earth’s future. That, and the possible return of Georgie Pie.  ▲

The author would like to acknowledge the works of Stephen D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner in writing this article.

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