The effect of global warming could potentially be ameliorated by engineering ways to reflect more sunlight back into space, according to a report by a professor at The University of Texas at Austin.
The report, by Professor J. Eric Bickel and Hudson Institute Fellow Lee Lane, was selected by a panel of international experts as one of 16 areas of research that governments and philanthropists should prioritize to respond to the world’s most pressing challenges.
The panel included four Nobel laureates in economics and was organized by the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a Denmark-based think tank that brings together the world’s brightest minds every four years to analyze the costs and benefits of approaches to tackling major societal problems. This is the second time Bickel has been asked to participate in the Copenhagen Consensus process. This year the consensus solicited reports from more than 65 researchers from around the world about topics such as fighting malnourishment, education shortages, population growth and climate change.
Bickel and Lane’s report ranked first among the four papers solicited on climate change, and 12th overall on a priority list released this week by the Copenhagen Consensus.
“The new volume of research produced for Copenhagen Consensus 2012 adds to our knowledge about the smartest ways of responding to humanity’s challenges,” said Copenhagen Consensus Center Director Bjorn Lomborg. “And the Nobel laureates’ list shows us there are many smart investments that could help so much of the planet for very little cost. These are the places that policymakers and philanthropists should direct their attention.”
Bickel, an operations research professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is an expert in decision making under uncertainty a field that uses economics, mathematics and statistics to identify decisions that produce the most optimal results. Bickel’s research is focused on energy and climate policy. He said he decided to analyze climate change because it’s the “mother of all decision-making-under-uncertainty challenges.”
“It’s a huge capital investment with lots of uncertainty,” he said.
Bickel’s paper identifies climate engineering the deliberate and large-scale alteration of the environment to combat climate change as a potential method in addressing this global challenge.
Current government policy focuses on reducing carbon emissions, but Bickel and Lane’s report says that even if these reductions begin, it could take hundreds of years for the climate to stabilize a scenario that’s troubling to scientists who warn that the climate may contain “tipping points” that, once crossed, trigger large and irreversible changes to the Earth.
“The main point of our paper is to ask whether research into climate engineering is justified, and our conclusion is that it is,” Bickel said. “Climate engineering holds the potential to limit warming, and it’s also the only technology that could possibly cool the Earth quickly enough if needed. So it plays an important risk management role.”
The paper doesn’t suggest implementing climate engineering at this point, but rather identifies two areas of climate engineering research that should be further explored: stratospheric aerosol injection and marine cloud whitening. Both processes create a cooling effect on the Earth by reflecting more sunlight into space.
Bickel said climate engineering methods still need to be further researched but they show promise and could be cheap to employ.
The idea is controversial, however, and the risks are still not fully understood. Because of this, Bickel said it’s important to research the viability of climate engineering as an approach to climate change. Proponents of researching climate engineering include Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., and the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of science and the oldest scientific body in the world.
A summary of Bickel and Lane’s research proposal along with summaries of other proposals solicited by the Copenhagen Consensus Center was featured on the Slate Magazine website. Readers were able to vote on each of the research proposals and selected Bickel’s climate engineering proposal as their 14th top investment priority.
The paper can be viewed at the Copenhagen Consensus website.