(p. B1) What if we wait too long to act on global warming? What if nothing we do is enough? Already, scientists are working up plans of last resort: stratospheric sprays of sulfur, trillions of orbiting mirrors and thousands of huge off-shore saltwater fountains.
Each is designed to counteract global warming by deliberately deflecting sunlight, rather than by retooling the world’s economy to eliminate carbon-rich oil, coal and natural gas.
Some scientists argue that such actions might be easier and relatively cheaper. Until recently though, whenever University of Maryland economist Thomas Schelling, recipient of a 2005 Nobel Prize, raised such geo-engineering ideas, "half the audience thought I was crazy and the other half thought I was dangerous," he said. As global temperatures rise and greenhouse-gas emissions accelerate, however, even wild ideas are becoming respectable.
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Earlier this month, researchers at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., released the most precise computer studies yet evaluating the controversial sunshade idea. Their findings, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that a last-ditch engineering effort to block sunlight could reverse global warming — at least temporarily. Indeed, it could lower average temperatures to levels not seen since 1900. "Every study we do seems to indicate it would work," said Carnegie climate modeler Ken Caldeira.
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For Nobel laureate Schelling, the political advantages of geo-engineering outweigh its technical risks. It may be easier to launch a climate-control project than to persuade people all over the world to stop using fossil fuels. "It drastically converts the whole subject of climate change from one of regulation involving six billion people to a simple matter of a budgetary agreement about how to manage the modest cost," Prof. Schelling said. "I think geo-engineering is going to be the deus ex machina that will save the day."
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