Can We Fight “Code Red” Without Devastating Emission Restrictions? Maybe We Should, At the Very Least, Consider Geoengineering or Orbit Nudging
WASHINGTON, D,C, (August 11, 2021) - A new UN report says the Earth has already reached "Code Red" because of climate change, and it's increasing unlikely that we can prevent even further disasters by efforts to drastically slash the emission of greenhouse gases; a so far largely unsuccessful effort involving truly astronomical economic costs and unprecedented international cooperation, notes Professor John Banzhaf, an MIT-educated scientist with two patents.
The New York Times recently reported that, as the effects of climate change become even more devastating, and the success of massive cooperative global efforts to sufficiently slash greenhouse gas emissions become even less likely, some scientists are proposing - as an approach which might at least be worthy of some study although it's completely outside the box - a strategy of solar geoengineering in which massive changes in the atmosphere would reflect more of the sun's rays back into space.
Drastic Emission Restrictions
As another outside-the-box idea which might also be worth at least some initial consideration, given the likely failure of the global emissions slashing strategy, a well known scientist has suggested a cosmic alternative to fight global warming - one which does not require any reduction in the emission of carbon dioxide, nor even difficult-to-enforce widespread international cooperation - and which might even cost less then some of the truly drastic emission restrictions now being considered, suggests Banzhaf.
The basic concept was originally suggested by a Lecturer in Space Systems Engineering at the University of Glasgow, and involves very substantially increasing the Earth's orbit to reduce the amount of solar energy reaching its surface when the sun, billions of years in the future, expands and becomes much hotter.
While this proposal was initially addressed to a problem still billions of years in the future when Earth would become unbearably hot, the basic concepts involved in changing a planet's orbit are well known. Indeed, the science fiction film "The Wandering Earth" dramatizes, although in an unrealistic and cinematic-type fashion, one such attempt.
This proposal, aimed at moving the Earth from its current orbit to one a full 50% further from the sun [from about 93 million miles to 139 million miles, a increase of approximately 46 million miles], similar to Mars', while theoretically possible, is clearly not feasible with today's technology, admits Banzhaf.
However, he notes that providing a remedy for the more immediate problems of gradual global warming, on a time scale now being considered by many governments and scientific bodies, would require a much less drastic change in the earth's orbit which might in the near future become feasible, especially considering the huge costs and major modifications in life style that the alternative of reducing carbon emissions might entail.
The recent and also very important UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report analyzed what will happen when the Earth gets even slightly warmer than pre-industrial levels.
The Cost Of 1.5°C Increase In Temperature
The UN put the cost of a mere 1.5°C [2.7°F] increase in temperature at $54 trillion in today's dollars, a 2.0°C [3.6°F] increase at $69 trillion, and a 3.7°C [6.7°F] increase at a stunning $551 trillion. To put these costs into context, the latter figure represents more than all the wealth now existing in the entire world.
According to NASA, Earth's global temperature in 2013 averaged 14.6°C [57.3°F], or 287.75° on the Kelvin scale, where 0°K is absolute zero. Thus, an additional 1.5 degrees on the Kelvin scale would mean an increase in absolute average temperature of only about 0.5% [from 287.7K to 289.2K].
Professor Banzhaf points out that the amount of sunlight (heating energy) falling on the surface of a planet is roughly inversely proportional not to its distance from the sun, but rather to the square of its distance from the sun. Thus, moving a hypothetical planet in an orbit originally 50 million miles from the sun to one twice as far [100 million miles] away would cause the amount of energy falling on its surface to be only one fourth - not one half - as great.
Using these figures, it appears that it would be necessary to increase the average distance of the Earth from the sun by only a fraction of one percent - about 0.3% [290,000 out of about 93,000,000 miles] - to reduce the heat energy equivalent, which various surfaces on the planet are now receiving, by 1.5°C or 1.5°K.
While this represents only a very rough approximation, it does suggest that changing the orbit by this relatively minute amount might be possible using existing technology, and/or new technology likely to be discovered in a few years if such efforts can be funded by hundreds of billions of dollars provided by major governments, and involve the same extraordinary innovative planning and research of the type used to permit men to live in space and land on the moon.
There are many well known ways to change the orbits of bodies in space, and some have actually been used to help redirect interplanetary probes, as well as studied just in case it ever becomes necessary to deflect an asteroid from getting so close to the Earth as to cause serious problems.
Methods For Changing Orbits
These alternative methods for changing orbits, some of which appear to be equally applicable (though on a much larger scale) to possibly nudging the Earth into a very slightly more distant orbit, include:
- an electric thruster - for example an ion drive - which works by firing out a stream of charged particles that propel a body in the opposite direction;
- using a focused light beam, such as a laser, to change the Earth’s velocity in its orbit around the sun;
- a huge solar sail floating in space near the Earth; or
- using a gravitational sling shot; a well-known technique for two bodies to exchange momentum and change their velocities with a close passage; a tactic used several times successfully with spacecraft.
Some suggest that nudging large asteroids into new orbits, which could then cause a cumulative sling shot effect on the Earth over many years, might be the most feasible alternative - both technologically and economically - in the near future.
Indeed, says Banzhaf, it might even be possible to exploit so-called "Δv leveraging" in which a body such as a large asteroid can be nudged slightly out of its orbit and, as a result, years later, it could swing past the Earth, providing a much larger impulse to increase earth's orbit by the very tiny amount needed to overcome global warming.
In theory, and perhaps maybe even in practice, large asteroids could be nudged out of their current orbits, and into new ones in a position to help sling shot Earth, by techniques such as a nuclear blast on the asteroid’s surface, having an unmanned spacecraft collide with an asteroid at high velocity, or a combination of both.
Other techniques for nudging asteroids into new orbits include providing a continuous push over a considerable period of time by a space “tugboat” connected to its surface, or by a spacecraft hovering nearby.
While Professor Banzhaf is certainly not proposing that countries abandon plans to limit greenhouse gases in favor of a cosmic nudge strategy, and recognizing that all these orbit-changing possibilities would be enormously expensive, he does suggest that this novel idea be at least considered and evaluated, and that its costs be compared to the truly huge economic costs and major lifestyle changes required to sufficiently slash the emission of greenhouse gases, or trying to utilize massive solar geoengineering.
What he does suggest is that an appropriate scientific body be asked to report whether a small (approximately 0.3%) increase in the Earth's orbit would in fact tend to counterbalance the current climate change and, if so, how the estimated expense of producing that orbital change might compare with the costs (monetary and otherwise) of fighting climate change by trying to get more than 100 countries to cooperate in slashing emissions by requiring massive lifestyle changes and draconian restrictions on industry and development.