Solar geoengineering—otherwise known as climate intervention—is risky as hell.
The term describes all of the methods that we can use to artificially and intentionally change the world’s climate and weather patterns to fight climate change. This includes things like carbon capture, which is the process of essentially vacuuming carbon out of the air. It can also include measures like filling swaths of the ocean with bubbles to (theoretically) stop hurricanes.
The most commonly researched and suggested method is marine cloud brightening, a process where we spray aerosols into the atmosphere to create clouds that reflect sunlight away from the Earth to cool it down. Teams of academics and researchers all over the world—and even in the White House—are looking into the method as a serious way of addressing the dire climate crisis that we’re currently facing.
However, there are concerns that doing so would have unintended and potentially disastrous consequences—and some new research might just bear that out.
A new study from scientists at Rutgers University published Thursday in the journal Nature Food found that climate intervention via marine cloud brightening may negatively impact crop growth and food production in large regions of the world. Not only could the process cause a food shortage, but it could also greatly exacerbate relations between nations.
“Climate intervention (geoengineering) schemes have been proposed to emulate large volcanic eruptions and produce a cloud in the upper atmosphere to reflect some sunlight to reduce global warming,” the team led by lead author Brendan Clark, an environmental researcher at Rutgers, told The Daily Beast in an email. “However, this reduction of temperature would affect agriculture in different ways in different locations, so different nations would prefer diverse levels of climate intervention or none at all.”
The study’s authors used computer modeling in order to simulate “global atmospheric, oceanic and land climate change as well as crop growth.” This allowed them to project how crops would grow in different countries under various geoengineering scenarios. They ultimately discovered a very uneven impact when it comes to food production.
For example, if there were just a small amount of marine cloud brightening utilized, food production in temperate regions including much of North America and Europe would benefit the most, while those in tropical regions like South America and Africa would be negatively impacted. However, the reverse was true when the model simulated a large amount of climate intervention—with more temperate regions seeing their crop growth diminish greatly as a result.
“[If] cold regions prefer no climate intervention, and instead get warming from climate change, then using any climate intervention would result in less crop production in these colder regions,” the team said. “Therefore, these colder regions would be negatively impacted relative to their ‘optimal’ scenario.”
The authors did note that much more research is ultimately needed on climate intervention, and that their own study was “derived from a single climate model and crop model simulation.” Additional studies surrounding the effects of climate intervention on human health and ecosystems are also required for “a more robust understanding.”
“There are many other potential risks and benefits from climate intervention that need more research,” the team said. “More government-funded research on this topic is important to informing decision makers in the future.”
Ultimately, the best course of action would be to dramatically reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere each year. Not only would this produce the fastest results, but it would also render the potential of a solar geoengineering-caused famine moot.
“If we reduce our emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere rapidly, there will be less global warming and its consequences, and we will be less tempted to use a climate intervention scheme,” the team said.
They added, “If continuing climate intervention research shows that its implementation would be riskier than not implementing it, we need to know that sooner rather than later, and speed up our efforts to move to a green economy.”