Should We Create Larger Ice Caps?

Earth’s climate is vulnerable to potential climate catastrophes that could threaten the longevity of civilization. Continued increases in greenhouse gas forcing could lead to the collapse of major ice sheets, which would cause catastrophic sea level rise and could cause the oceanic thermohaline circulation to halt. Further warming could cause the heat stress index to exceed survival limits, inducing hyperthermia in humans and other mammals. Even more extreme warming could shift Earth into a runaway greenhouse regime that would lead to the loss of all oceans, and the end of all life.

Geoengineering refers to the large-scale use of technology to alter Earth’s global climate, and geoengineering has been suggested as a way to ameliorate contemporary climate change. Addressing these immediate climate challenges through a combined strategy of adaptation, mitigation, and (if needed) geoengineering is a critical issue facing us today. Whether or not we decide to engage in geoengineering today, we must still devise a long-term strategy to address our changing climate.

But in the longer-term, could we also use geoengineering techniques to increase the size of the polar ice caps? In a paper published in a special issue of the journal Futures, I raise the question, “Should we geoengineer larger ice caps?” By doing so, the global average temperature of Earth could be lowered from its current state to a new stable regime with much larger ice caps. Earth has experienced shifts in ice coverage in its past, and a prolonged program of geoengineering–say, lasting a thousand years or more–could allow us to permanently shift the energy balance of Earth. More ice at the poles increases the amount of sunlight reflected back to space, leading to cooler temperatures.

Of course, the unfortunate side effects of this idea would be mass migration of populations near the poles, shifts in global agricultural zones, and a required commitment of millenia in order to avoid undesired side-effects. Human civilization today probably lacks the fortitude to embark on such a long-term goal. Nevertheless, thinking about the long-term management of our planetary system helps us realize that we have already entered the epoch of the Anthropocene. Our civilization itself is fundamentally intertwined with our global climate, and we should allow humility, rather than hubris, guide decisions to control our environment.

Building Refuges to Survive Global Catastrophes

Global catastrophes are events that could severely cripple or destroy the foundations of civilization. Potential global catastrophes include nuclear winter, large asteroid impacts, super-volcanic eruptions, and pandemics. Humans may not necessarily become extinct under such scenarios, but, without adequate advance preparation, rebuilding civilization following such a catastrophe could prove difficult.

In a paper published in a special issue of the journal Futures, my co-authors and I present several concepts of “Isolated refuges for surviving global catastrophes.” Although catastrophic events could destroy a significant portion of the human population, isolated refuges would provide a way to protect a small group of humans so that they survive long enough to rebuild civilization. We discuss several factors that are critical for ensuring the success of a refuge, including self-sufficiency, a continuous population, secrecy, and adequate monitoring of the outside world.

We also discuss the concept of surface-independence, suggesting that an underground, underwater, or space-based refuge might provide the greatest protection of its inhabitants from the effects of global catastrophes. Any of these refuges could significantly make the human species more resilient to catastrophic threats. Space-based refuges provide an exceptional degree of isolation from Earth, and the cost of such an extraterrestrial refuge might be best “piggybacked” onto existing scientific endeavors that seek to establish a permanent presence on the moon or elsewhere in space.

Geoengineering Double Catastrophe

If geoengineering by injection of aerosol particles into the stratosphere is deployed, then the occurrence of a global catastrophe could cause intermittency in geoengineering and lead to total damages far greater than if either situation occurred in isolation. While the outcomes of the double catastrophe are difficult to predict, plausible worst-case scenarios include human extinction. In a paper published this month in the journal Environment Systems & Decisions, on which I am a co-author, we develop this double catastrophe scenario, which strengthens arguments for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and demonstrates the value of integrative, systems-based global catastrophic risk analysis.

Global catastrophic risks are risks of events that would significantly harm or even destroy humanity at the global scale, such as climate change, nuclear war, and pandemics. To date, most research on global catastrophes analyzes one risk at a time. A better approach uses systems analysis to capture the many important interactions between risks. This paper analyzes a global catastrophe scenario involving climate change, geoengineering, and another catastrophe. We call the scenario “double catastrophe”.

The rising temperatures of global climate change pose great risks to humanity and ecosystems. Climate change can be slowed by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. But humanity has been struggling to reduce emissions. One alternative is geoengineering, the intentional manipulation of Earth systems. The most promising geoengineering option may be stratospheric geoengineering, in which aerosol particles are put into the stratosphere. The particles block sunlight, lowering temperatures on Earth’s surface.

One problem with stratospheric geoengineering, known as intermittency, is that the particles must be continuously replaced in the stratosphere. If they’re not, then in a few years they fall out, and temperatures rapidly rise back to where they would have been without the geoengineering. The rapid temperature increase would be very damaging to society. Because of this, society is unlikely to let intermittency occur–unless some other catastrophe occurs, knocking out society’s ability to continue the geoengineering. Then, the rapid temperature increase hits a population already vulnerable from the initial catastrophe. This double catastrophe could be a major global catastrophe.

Because of how damaging global catastrophes would be to human civilization, decision making is often oriented towards minimizing the risk of global catastrophe. Stratospheric geoengineering can prevent global catastrophe from climate change alone, but it can also lead to global catastrophe from the double catastrophe scenario. If global catastrophe is more likely from climate change alone, then society should decide to implement stratospheric geoengineering. Otherwise, society is better off without stratospheric geoengineering. This assumes (among other things) that the goal should be minimizing global catastrophic risk and that stratospheric geoengineering is the best form of geoengineering.