Humans are the villain in Netflix’s new series ‘Our Planet’

The new Netflix series Our Planet begins, of all places, on the moon. Rest assured that the camera soon reveals a view of our tiny, stunning home planet, where it stays grounded for the next eight episodes. It’s an exercise in perspective. As the astronauts on the Apollo mission first found out 50 years ago, that distant view helps you see that our fragile planet has limits. It’s a precious object.

David Attenborough, the 92-year-old naturalist famous for his warm, authoritative half-whisper, immediately clears up any concerns that Our Planet is your typical nature show. As a polar bear and its cub amble across icy terrain, Attenborough explains that wildlife populations have plunged, on average, by 60 percent over the last 50 years. “For the first time in human history,” he says, “the stability of nature can no longer be taken for granted.” (Cue melting ice crashing into the sea.)

Our Planet takes you on a trip to every type of landscape and seascape on Earth. The icy Antarctic, the deep jungle in Borneo, the Arabian desert, the coral reefs of Australia. It has all the familiar scenes of frolicking wildebeest, feasting flamingos, and weird bird mating dances you’re used to seeing from the Planet Earth canon, but unlike its predecessors, it’s punctuated by frequent reminders that global catastrophe is unfolding. Half of the world’s shallow coral reefs have already perished, and the rest could disappear within a few decades. Each year we lose nearly 15 million hectares of tropical forest, an area larger than Illinois. And by 2040, the Arctic Ocean will be mostly ice-free.

“We are entering a new geological era, not as in the past when changes happened over millions of years, not even over thousands of years or centuries, but within decades — within my lifetime,” Attenborough writes in the coffee table book that accompanies the documentary. “These changes are as rapid and as great as when the planet was struck by an asteroid.”

The show is part of an emerging genre of wildlife documentary that tackles conservation and climate change in tandem. The new National Geographic seriesHostile Planet, narrated by Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, portrays animals toughing out searing heat, parched landscapes, and fractured ice in the most extreme environments on Earth. Attenborough also narrated a documentary coming out this spring called Climate Change: The Facts on BBC One.

For a show about our shifting environment, it’s curious that Our Planet’s carefully constructed opening — and the entire first episode — fails to mention “climate change” by name. (The later episodes don’t shy away from the phrase.) The opening episode, which explains how far-flung habitats on Earth are all connected, was possibly the hardest one to get right, said Alastair Fothergill, the series producer, in an email.

“We felt it critical for the whole series that the balance between entertainment, education, and environmental messaging was just right,” he said. “We need millions of people worldwide to watch this series, and we need to ensure we do not alienate the audience.”

It’s a tough task, since the episodes are filled with sobering facts. Dismal statistics spell out the fate of the unsuspecting animals living their lives onscreen. As you watch fuzzy orangutans swing between trees in northern Sumatra, for example, Attenborough says you could be looking at the last ones to live in the wild. Deforestation has led to the demise of 100 orangutans a week, he says, by turning their jungle home into expanses of palm trees grown for their oil.

Those responsible for all this forest-clearing, poaching, and destruction spend most of the series offstage. The only time people show up is in the “Coastal Seas” episode, which illustrates overfishing by showing fishermen at work in their boats. Only a few images of human activity made the cut, Fothergill said. But they’re all the more powerful as a result.

Grace Frank / Silverback / Netflix

The episodes come with mini science lessons. You’ll learn how Arctic sea ice acts as a “protective white shield” for the planet, keeping the earth cool by reflecting the sun’s energy back into space, and that Earth is losing that shield, a feedback loop that accelerates warming. You’ll also learn about the science of coral bleaching and the amazing carbon-sucking powers of forests and seagrass.

And, as in any good nature series, you’ll probably find one thing that blows you away. For me, in Blue Planet II, it was the toxic lakes inside the ocean. In Our Planet, it’s that the underside of that pristine-looking Antarctic sea ice is covered in algae, forming the base of an ecosystem that Attenborough describes as “the polar equivalent of the great grasslands.”

It’s not all grim. Siberian tigers are slowly coming back from the brink of extinction; blue whales and humpback whales have made remarkable recoveries thanks to international agreements around saving them. It’s a reminder of what human cooperation is capable of accomplishing when we’re actually able to cooperate … or when we just leave things alone.

The final episode tells the story of Europe’s strangest wildlife recovery. It takes place in the radioactive exclusion zone around Chernobyl, Ukraine. Twenty years after 100,000 people evacuated, the fallout zone held animal populations similar to those in the wilder parts of Europe, Attenborough says; now, wildlife populations there are more profuse than in the surrounding nature preserves or national parks. Bison, elk, and red deer wander among the ruins of buildings as wolves and lynx patrol the forest that’s regrown in the former suburbs.

“They may be radioactive,” the Our Planet book says, “but they are having a ball.”

People who don’t have children benefit our environment more than any campaign – it’s time to celebrate them

Society should also acknowledge that those who choose not to have children are making a valuable contribution to a sustainable future

Kim Cattrall famously said that she didn't want to be referred to as "childless" as she found the term offensive

Kim Cattrall famously said that she didn’t want to be referred to as “childless” as she found the term offensive ( Getty Images )

The global population is growing rapidly, while the resources we depend on to live are dwindling. If you consider the footprint each person makes on the world – in terms of food and water consumed, electricity and gas used, and waste produced – the challenge of improving living standards while protecting natural resources and the environment is striking. The question of human population size is fundamentally one of sustainability, and in that so is the choice to have children.

Rather than being taboo, being childfree is something that should be celebrated and valued. The childfree do more for our environment than any campaign. In the UK our electricity use per capita is 5,407 kWh – it’s nigh on impossible to make up for the environmental footprint of having a child by remembering to switch off the lights. Finite resources mean we must consider our consumption now, what living standards are acceptable, and how to maintain the ecosystems on which we depend and how many of us there are.

Women are now as likely to be childless as to have three children. As social norms shift, a childfree lifestyle has become increasingly attractive, with career taking centre-stage for many thirtysomethings. Add to this rising living costs and you can see the clear benefits of not having children: the £250,000 required to raise each child is a challenge even for the most well-off.

In recent months, there has been ongoing speculation about those who do not have children: let’s call them ‘the childfree’, whether it’s Jennifer Aniston’s “baby bump” or conversations in the corridors of Westminster. Andrea Leadsom believed her credentials as a mother made her Prime Minister in-waiting, while Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith’s self-proclaimed normality stemmed from his “wife and two kids”. Being childfree is one of the oldest taboos, and it comes with a host assumed connotations: being less invested in the future or being ‘abnormal’ are but two.

There are, however, signs that things are changing. Our new Prime Minister became not only the second woman to fill the role, but the first to do so without being a mother. Leadsom’s alienating language backfired: the media and Twitterati rounded on those burnishing their ‘normal family’ credentials.  It was May’s experience and competency that saw her become Prime Minister – her childfree status was, in the end, irrelevant.


Of course, having a family will always be a central part of life for many. The people who wish to have children but cannot need our empathy and support. But society should also acknowledge that those who choose not to have children are making a valuable contribution to a sustainable future.

Renewable energy is making waves in Europe

Our numbers have doubled in the last 50 years, transforming Earth into a ticking time bomb. Climate change is one devastating symptom of this surge. Population growth increases the number of wealthy carbon emitters and poorer climate change victims, while hampering mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Beyond environmental concerns, political instability, civil conflict and mass migration are an inevitable consequence. Young populations, high birth rates and rising life expectancy mean that, for instance, Africa’s population alone is expected to rise from one to four billion this century. While a global response is needed, industrialised countries like Britain, which consume more than their fair share of resources, must lead by example.

With the steady erosion of the childfree taboo, it is time to reopen the debate surrounding population growth and sustainability, educate young people about mindful consumption, and advocate improvements to family planning, sex education and women’s rights.

I will close with the wise words of actress and model Cameron Diaz: “I think women are afraid to say that they don’t want children because they’re going to get shunned. But I think that’s changing too now. I have more girlfriends who don’t have kids than those that do. And, honestly? We don’t need any more kids. We have plenty of people on this planet.”

Simon Ross is chief executive of Population Matters, a UK-based membership charity that addresses population size and environmental sustainability

Humans cause climate change. Do we just need fewer humans?

Grist / GoodLifeStudio / Getty Images

Q. How come the huge impact of our population growth on climate change doesn’t get more attention when we talk about how to take action against warming?

— Too Many Humans, Too Little Time


There’s long been a contingent of environmentalists who love to point to the world’s population as a major factor in humans’ self-destruction. The logic seems basic: Climate change is caused by humans, so fewer humans should limit the harm of climate change.

The “optimal” global population to sustain ecosystems is considered to be between 1 and 2 billion. The actual population at present is a bit more than 7.5 billion.

The issue of how you arrive at fewer humans is decidedly less basic. Some entity has to dictate which humans get to produce more humans — or in an even more macabre scenario, which humans stay and which humans go. The way that societies have made that decision, historically, is by ranking the worth of different groups — usually by ethnicity, often by sexuality, frequently by mental and physical ability — and sterilizing those deemed to be of lower value. In the U.S. alone, LatinosNative AmericansAfrican-Americans, and the mentally ill and disabled have all been victims of this dehumanizing practice, shockingly all as recently as the 1970s.

“A main argument for why those coerced sterilizations were done was to alleviate the pressure that population growth was putting on state resources, because these groups were disproportionately receiving welfare,” Jade Sasser, a professor of feminist political ecology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change, told me.

That argument goes directly back to the English economist Thomas Malthus, who wrote in the late-18th century that unchecked population growth would bring with it food shortages, illness, and conflict, she explained. “And it actually exacerbates inequality because it suggests that the poor and people of color are responsible for the inequalities that actually constrain their lives and their choices.”

The man who many count as responsible for bringing Malthusian logic into mainstream environmental theory is Stanford University conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich, co-author of the controversial book “The Population Bomb.” (His wife, Anne, is his frequent collaborator and an uncredited co-author on that seminal work.) I called him to try to answer how much we can blame overpopulation for climate change.

Fifty years after his book’s release, Ehrlich still believes that population is an under-recognized threat in environmental degradation because it naturally drives up consumption. In collaboration with John Holdren, who went on to serve as President Barack Obama’s senior science and technology advisor, Ehrlich developed the “IPAT equation” in the 1970s:

Environmental impact (I) = population (P) x affluence or, essentially, propensity to consume (A) x technology (T).

Looking at the equation, it stands to reason that if we are able to greatly reduce consumption and greatly improve the efficiency of our technology, wouldn’t that allow us to potentially forgo population control?

“It certainly would carry less weight,” Ehrlich said. “But the problem is that the three together now are on a doomsday path. I don’t see the slightest chance of us changing to avoid what’s coming. The idea that you can just ignore how many people there are and get a technological fix to worry about food or climate or war or so on — it’s as illogical as religion.”

It likely comes as no surprise that in the half-century since IPAT’s development a new generation of academics has made modifications to it. I found one in a lecture from an industrial ecology course taught at Dartmouth College.

This alternate version replaces affluence with per capita Gross Domestic Product, the value of all goods and services in a particular economy divided by its total population. The equation reads:

Environmental impact = GDP per capita x population x technology.

Population cancels out, of course, and you end up with:

Environmental impact = GDP x technology.

This modified IPAT can be used to show how different countries contribute to climate change through their energy use — there are wealthy countries with relatively clean technology (like Denmark, where wind energy is dominant), middle-income countries with high-polluting technology (like coal-dependent India), and low-income countries who consume very little but also have regressive technology (like Somalia, which relies heavily on diesel generators).

In our conversation, Ehrlich suggests we should aspire to have a system where everyone consumes the same amount. At the same time, he says, we should work toward making that consumption as sustainable as possible. But, he adds, “I see no way you can solve problems of equity without the rich giving up a lot of what they do to make room for the poor to do better.”

Without rapid development of clean-powered circular economies and a massive transfer of wealth, we end up back with population being an active factor in climate change.

OK, so how do you choose which people have to go? Imagine the United States Congress — largely white people, many of whom enjoy great wealth, but generally all of whom consume plenty (in some cases thanks to their support of dirty technologies). If those people are making the rules on population control in the U.S., do you think they’re going to advocate for the rights of communities that aren’t like most of its members?

In fact, the one point that both the reproductive justice community and neo-Malthusians can agree on is that the provision of voluntary, universal access to birth control is a bare-minimum human right. In the United States, one of the highest-emitting countries in the world, it’s misleading to discuss population-based policies — such as China’s one-child policy — as a reasonable solution to climate change when access to reproductive healthcare and any number of should-be basic resources here is so uneven.

“There are those environmentalists who are saying it’s not about voluntary access to birth control, it’s about creating demand and convincing people to have fewer children,” said Sasser, the UC Riverside professor. “I find that argument frustrating because the poor tend to use far fewer polluting resources than the wealthy, and until we really get to a place in which those kinds of social inequalities are eliminated, I don’t think we should be targeting the poor for lowering their resource consumption. It’s based on a blindness to inequalities that exist throughout the world.”

So my answer to your question, TMHTLT, is this: Talking about population as the primary cause of climate change is like talking about food as the primary cause of obesity. You can’t have obesity without food. (I mean, you can’t survive long enough to be obese without food.) But it’s not always the primary cause of obesity. There’s also systemic lack of access to healthy food, poor quality healthcare, genetic illness, and even environmental factors.

Simply limiting food without addressing any of the other factors doesn’t guarantee an improvement in the overall health of the person who is obese. Similarly, narrowly focusing on population without making incredible efforts to reduce our consumption and improve our technology is irresponsible.



Scientists Are 99.9999 Percent Sure Humans Caused Climate Change

“The narrative out there that scientists don’t know the cause of climate change is wrong. We do.”

Dan RobitzskiFebruary 26th 2019

No, We’re Sure

New analysis of 40 years’ worth of satellite data shows that it’s a near-certainty that humanity is actively causing global climate change.

Climate deniers often claim, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that the planet is heating up and natural disasters are becoming more intense and common just because that’s the way it is — incorrectly insisting that humanity’s love affair with fossil fuels has nothing to do with it. Now, scientists say the chances that that’s true are just one in a million.

Yep, Pretty Sure

According to the research by scientists at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, that’s because climate data has now reached a so-called “gold standard” of scientific evidence — there’s only a one in a million chance that ongoing climate change could have been caused by anything other than humanity, reportsReuters.

“The narrative out there that scientists don’t know the cause of climate change is wrong,” Benjamin Santer, the scientist who led the research, told Reuters. “We do.”

No Uncertainty

The scientific research process almost never eradicates uncertainty: researchers test their hypotheses to get a better understanding of the world, but there’s almost always some other factor out there that could have impacted their findings. In other words, a gold standard is not something that’s taken lightly.

The new analysis looked at the three largest satellite data sets used by climate scientists. It shows that two of those data sets reached the gold standard of certainty that humanity causes climate change back in 2005, and the third did in 2016.

That level of certainty, highly uncommon in scientific research, makes humanity’s impact on the planet very clear. And now we have to figure out what to do about it.

“Humanity cannot afford to ignore such clear signals,” reads the analysis.

Bramble Cay melomys: Climate change-ravaged rodent listed as extinct

The Bramble Cay melomysImage copyrightIAN BELL/EHP
Image captionThe Bramble Cay melomys lived on a tiny island in Australia’s far north

It was described in 2016 as the first mammalian extinction caused by human-induced climate change.

Now the eradication of the Bramble Cay melomys has been officially recognised by Australia, its only known home.

The rodent lived solely on a tiny sand island in the Torres Strait, near the coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The species has not been seen since 2009.

Scientists say there is a chance that an identical or similar species could yet be discovered in PNG.

But they’re uncertain because PNG’s nearby Key River region has been little documented by research.

Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of animal extinction, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

‘Our little brown rat’

The Australian government’s decision to list the species as extinct comes after the Queensland state government made an identical determination in 2016.

A state government report said it was almost certainly caused by “ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals”.

It added: “Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change.”


The loss of an animal that was hardly known in the public mind has generated sadness in Australia and abroad.

“The Bramble Cay melomys was a little brown rat,” said Tim Beshara, a spokesman for advocacy group The Wilderness Society.

“But it was our little brown rat and it was our responsibility to make sure it persisted. And we failed.”

Conservation efforts

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian scientists had found no trace of the animal in recent surveys of Bramble Cay, an island of just five hectares.

A 2008 “recovery plan” had downplayed the risks to its survival, the newspaper reported.

The current government, in office since 2013, has frequently defended its environmental efforts – citing a A$425m (£233m; $300m) investment in threatened species programmes, among other efforts.

But it has also been heavily criticised by conservation groups for not providing greater funding, or additional policies.

Australia is rare among developed countries because it is described as mega-diverse, but experts warn that biodiversity is under threat from environmental upheaval.

The nation is not on track to meet its commitment of reducing emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, according to the most recent government data.

Presentational grey line

How do we decide how endangered a species is?

  • Are they all living in one area – and therefore more likely to be wiped out by a single cause – or are they geographically spread out?
  • How long is their reproductive cycle and so how quickly could their population recover if there were enough breeding pairs?
  • What are the range of threats they face?
  • How genetically diverse is the population?
  • How threatened is their habitat?

How Long Have Humans Been On Earth?

While our ancestors have been around for about six million years, the modern form of humans only evolved about 200,000 years ago. Civilization as we know it is only about 6,000 years old, and industrialization started in the earnest only in the 1800s. While we’ve accomplished much in that short time, it also shows our responsibility as caretakers for the only planet we live on right now.

The effects of humans on Earth cannot be understated. We’ve been able to survive in environments all over the world, even harsh ones such as Antarctica. Every year, we fell forests and destroy other natural areas, driving species into smaller areas or into endangerment, because of our need to build more housing to contain our growing population.

With seven billion people on Earth, pollution from industry and cars is a growing element in climate change — which affects our planet in ways we can’t predict. But we’re already seeing the effects in melting glaciers and rising global temperatures.

Enormous chuck of ice breaks off the Petermann Glacier in Greenland. Credit: NASA.
Enormous chuck of ice breaks off the Petermann Glacier in Greenland. Credit: NASA.

The first tangible link to humanity started around six million years ago with a primate group called Ardipithecus, according to the Smithsonian Institution. Based in Africa, this group began the path of walking upright. This is traditionally considered important because it allowed for more free use of the hands for toolmaking, weaponry and other survival needs.

The Australopithecus group, the museum added, took hold between about two million and four million years ago, with the abilities to walk upright and climb trees. Next came Paranthropus, which existed between about one million and three million years ago. The group is distinguished by its larger teeth, giving a wider diet.

The Homo group — including our own species, Homo sapiens — began arising more than two million years ago, the museum said. It’s distinguished by bigger brains, more tool-making and the ability to reach far beyond Africa. Our species was distinguished about 200,000 years ago and managed to survive and thrive despite climate change at the time. While we started in temperate climates, about 60,000 to 80,000 years ago the first humans began straying outside of the continent in which our species was born.

GOCE view of Africa.. Credits: ESA/HPF/DLR, anaglyph by Nathanial Burton-Bradford.
GOCE view of Africa.. Credits: ESA/HPF/DLR, anaglyph by Nathanial Burton-Bradford.

“This great migration brought our species to a position of world dominance that it has never relinquished,” reads a 2008 article in Smithsonian Magazine, pointing out that eventually we obviated the competition (most prominently including Neanderthals and Homo erectus). When the migration was complete,” the article continues, “Homo sapiens was the last—and only—man standing.”

Using genetic markers and an understanding of ancient geography, scientists have partially reconstructed how humans could have made the journey. It’s believed that the first explorers of Eurasia went there using the Bab-al-Mandab Strait that now divides Yemen and Djibouti, according to National Geographic. These people made it to India, then by 50,000 years ago, southeast Asia and Australia.

A little after this time, another group began an inland journey across the Middle East and south-central Asia, positioning them to later go to Europe and Asia, the magazine added. This proved important for North America, as about 20,000 years ago, some of these people crossed over to that continent using a land bridge created by glaciation. From there, colonies have been found in Asia dating as far back as 14,000 years ago.

A teensy-tiny Neil Armstrong is visible in the helmet of Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969. Credit: NASA
A teensy-tiny Neil Armstrong is visible in the helmet of Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969. Credit: NASA

Since this is a space website, it’s also worth noting when humans began leaving Earth. The first human mission to space took place April 12, 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit of Earth in his spacecraft, Vostok 1. Humanity first set foot on another world on July 20, 1969, when Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.

Since then, our colonization efforts in space have focused mostly on space stations. The first space station was the Soviet Salyut 1, which launched from Earth April 19, 1971 and was first occupied by Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Vokov, and Viktor Patsayev on June 6. The men died during re-entry June 29 due to spacecraft decompression, meaning no further flights went to that station.

There have been other space stations since. A notable example is Mir, which hosted several long-duration missions of a year or more — including the longest single spaceflight duration of any human to date, 437 days, by Valeri Polyakov in 1994-95. The International Space Station launched its first piece Nov. 20, 1998 and has been continuously occupied by humans since Oct. 31, 2000. The first humans to start the continuous occupation included Expedition 1 members Bill Shepard (U.S.) and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko.

“Global warming: Stop worrying and start panicking?” 

“… the race between climate dynamics and  climate policy will be a close one ….”
Hans Joachim Schellenhuber.
“Global warming: Stop worrying and start panicking?”
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2008
Opening paragraph
“In their excellent Perspectives article in this issue (1), Ramanathan and Feng (R&F) sound a harsh wake-up call for those concerned about anthropogenic climate change: the authors maintain that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the past have already loaded the Earth System sufficiently to bring about disastrous global warming. In other words, the ultimate goal of climate protection policy, as stipulated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (2), appears to be a delusion.”


“The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.”
Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum.
The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.”

Scientists say controversial plan to cool the planet is “doable”

Spraying chemicals into the atmosphere could slow global warming by reflecting sunlight back into space.

A new study finds that global engineering efforts could cost $3.5 billion over the course of the next 15 years to develop the technology.David Goldman / AP file

By Rafi Letzter, Live Science

Earth keeps getting hotter. Humanity isn’t doing enough to stop it. So, scientists are increasingly musing about conducting dramatic interventions in the atmosphere to cool the planet. And new research suggests that a project of atmospheric cooling would not only be doable, but also cheap enough that a single, determined country could pull it off. That cooling wouldn’t reverse climate change. The greenhouse gases would still be there. The planet would keep warming overall, but that warming would significantly, measurably slow down.

Those are the conclusions of a paper published Nov. 23 in the journal Environmental Research Letters by a pair of researchers from Harvard and Yale universities. It’s the deepest and most current study yet of “stratospheric aerosol injection” (also known as “solar dimming” or “solar engineering”). That’s the spraying of chemicals into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s heat back into space, mimicking the global cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions.

The researchers found that humanity could, using this method, cut our species’ annual contributions to the greenhouse effect in half at a price that states and large cities spend all the time on highways, subways and other infrastructure projects: a total of about $3.5 billion over the course of the next 15 years to develop the technology. (Most of those funds would go into building planes able to carry big tanks of aerosol spray into the stratosphere, about double the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747.) Once the tech is ready, the researchers found, the project would then cost another $2.25 billion or so each following year (assuming the effort would run for the next 15 years).

For comparison, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation budget in 2017 was $1.8 billion. Texas will have spent nearly a billion dollars replacing a single bridge in Corpus Christi. New York City subway-repair budgets routinely run into the tens of billions of dollars. Belgium spends about $4 billion every year on its military. In other words, geoengineering the atmosphere to slow climate change is cheap enough that a small, determined state or country could probably afford to do it, not to mention a superpower like the U.S. or China. [8 Ways Global Warming Is Already Changing the World]

That might seem nuts, but outside researchers who read the paper said its methods were sound and its conclusions not all that surprising.

“[The paper] seemed reasonable and methodical to me,” said Kate Ricke, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies climate change and policies for addressing it. “I think it’s definitely a helpful contribution, in that it confirms this idea that stratospheric engineering would be much cheaper than emissions reductions for the same global temperature effect.”

Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, agreed.

“One could expect any governmental operations to have cost overruns, but overall, I’ve got no reason to question these findings. They seem reasonable to me,” he told Live Science.


The science here is in a certain respect straightforward: Dump sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere, and it will reflect light back into space. SO2 is cheap, and there’s lots of it available. Most of the costs of the project would come from lofting the SO2 high enough that it would stick around, Wake Smith, a co-author of the paper and lecturer at Yale, said. [Cool the Planet? Geoengineering Is Easier Said Than Done]

“If you deploy material at 35,000 feet [10,700 meters], say, where your 737 flies, it rains back down in a few days, because it’s just being acted on by gravity,” he told Live Science. “If you get it up into the stratosphere, on the other hand, then it stays aloft for a year or 18 months.”

(This, incidentally, is one of the reasons that chemtrail conspiracy theories — which mistakenly link chemtrails to a secret government plan to modify the weather — are so implausible, he added. Anything sprayed at the heights at which jetliners fly would disappear within half a week.)

Still, getting the SO2 high enough isn’t an insurmountable challenge, this paper shows, and the approach really could cool down the planet.

But cooling down the planet isn’t the same thing as reversing climate change, the researchers explained.

Carbon emissions do a lot more than just form a chemical greenhouse around the planet. They also make the oceans more acidic and alter the global movement of air and water. Already, these emissions have baked heat into the system that wouldn’t just go away if humanity slapped a layer of SO2 into the stratosphere. [The Craziest Climate Change Fixes]

“It may be that we can reduce global surface temperatures​ overall, relative to where they would be in an un-engineered world,” Smith said, “but that doesn’t mean that the climate in every place will go back to the way it was. Some places will be warmer. Some will be cooler. Some will be drier. And some will be wetter, and even a perfectly engineered climate future, which is impossible, will change things all over the world, and that won’t be good for people either.”

Plus, he said, there are tipping points in climate change that an SO2 bandage wouldn’t fix.

“If all the ice in Greenland melted and slid into the sea,” Smith said, referring to a scenario that would drastically raise sea levels, flooding coastlines all over the world, “and then we refreeze the planet, or cool the planet by engineering, the ice won’t climb back up from the sea onto the land. The ice on Greenland is the result of millions of years of snowfall.”

So, even though he thinks this sort of geoengineering is worth studying, he said it’s important that people understand that it isn’t a solution.

“I do worry that some fossil fuel company will say exactly that, and the geoengineering community is going to have to figure out how to guard against that infiltration or any association in the public’s mind,” he said.


The idea of pumping aerosols into the upper atmosphere to mitigate climate change taken seriously enough that the concept turned up in the recent 2018 IPCC report on climate change as a possible mitigation approach — though the IPCC stopped short of endorsing this sort of spraying. Right now, it looks cheaper than alternative geoengineering technologies, Ricke said, like proposals to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. (The IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is an international organization established by the United Nations to assess the science, risks and impacts of climate change.)

But that doesn’t mean that such approaches will, or should, happen, the researchers all agreed.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea at this point,” Ricke said. “I don’t think we know enough about how to do it. And we don’t have anything close to a system for reaching agreement about the amount we should do or how we should make that decision about the specifics of where we would put more aerosols, et cetera. I don’t think we’re anywhere close.”

But all of that could change, she said.

“There’s a lot of scary climate-change impacts, like melting glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, that are staring us in the face,” she said. “Because [cutting emissions] and CO2 removal will take some time, even if we get serious about implementing them — which I’m not convinced about — I think that solar geoengineering has the potential to be one of the only options left.”

That’s worrying for a number of reasons, Smith said, one of which is that there would almost certainly be side effects that the sprayers couldn’;t anticipate. Though one benefit of the spraying, he added, is that as soon as it’s stopped its effects would go away within 18 months.

Caldeira agreed that the use of such engineering looks more and more likely, but said he doubted it would happen, due to the political dynamics involved. No politicians, he said, would want to take the blame for a bad weather event that occurred the year after they voted to spray SO2.

“Imagine if Hurricane Sandy happened on the year after we started putting this material up there,” he said, suggesting people could place blame on the atmospheric engineering.

Still, he said, a small country badly hit by climate change might decide to do this without global approval. However, the paper noted that such an effort would be impossible to keep secret, and other, larger nations might decide to stop the project. Doing this work properly would require flying all over the world’s middle latitudes, and this would have to go on indefinitely. (Masking the warming effect of greenhouse gases doesn’t make them go away, and they can last for a thousand years in the atmosphere, unlike sulfates. So, the solar engineering would have to continue, to counteract those effects.)

“I’m not going to say whether [I think we’ll get to the point of atmospheric spraying],” Smith said, “not because it’s too much of a hot potato, but because I really don’t know.”

Other techniques for geoengineering might become cheaper, or nations might just never get around to this sort of climate mitigation, he said.

For now, Ricke said, the big open questions involve stratospheric chemistry — how sulfur would interact with other chemicals in the atmosphere — and the local effects of this sort of program. How would a big new batch of SO2 in the atmosphere affect the ozone layer, for example? How would individual regions, agriculture or local water systems react to the sudden change in sunlight? How would the public react?

For now, she said, she wants to see a lot more research.

Originally published on Live Science.


Why “South Park” doesn’t understand climate change

© Courtesy of Comedy Central

The show gets a lot right about climate change, but it misses something major about human nature.

“South Park” just ran a couple episodes about climate change. The show gets a lot right about the history of the problem, but it screws up a key factor of human nature in the process, one that could completely flip the future.

I won’t go into too much detail about the episodes, but the main characters — a few schoolboys — discover that past generations made a deal with a demon (a thinly-veiled symbol for climate change). Old people traded the environment for cars and ice cream.

“It’s here because of their greediness,” explained one of the boys.

“Everyone’s greedy!” shouted the boy’s grandfather.

In the end, the demon offers the citizens of South Park a deal: He’ll go away forever … If they give up soy sauce and their favorite video game.

“Just … plain rice?” murmurs one resident.

The citizens of South Park turn down the deal, opting instead to sacrifice future generations and lives of children in third world countries so they can keep playing video games and eating tasty rice.

“Yeah, I thought so,” jabbed the grandfather.

The message is as simple as it is hopeless: humans, or at least Americans, won’t give up their luxuries to save the planet.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show’s creators, are beloved by libertarians, and this philosophy shows through in the episodes. The show regularly suggests humans are completely selfish and incapable of banding together to make a better world. Thus, when it comes to climate change, humanity is doomed.

I agree that humans, individually, may not make enough sacrifices to save the environment. But I take issue with the idea that we can’t band together to make these changes as a group. In fact, the scenario “South Park” ended with is the precise scenario that could save the world.

No one wants give up something they like on their own. But the game changes when a whole society agrees to make a sacrifice. Think about it: you may not often buy meals for hungry people. But Americans tax themselves so the hungry can have food stamps. It’s all about knowing everyone else is making the sacrifice too.

That’s the point of democracy: government lets us act collectively, rather than relying on everyone to behave individually. I may not stop buying soy sauce on my own. But if I knew my giving up soy sauce would save the world, I’d do it in a heartbeat. That’s the beauty of collective action — everyone pitches in knowing that, since everyone else is doing it, the problem will actually get fixed.

Humanity can handle collective decision-making, even when economic sacrifices are involved. During the Great Depression, the government shut down the banks for a few days to prevent bank runs. The government was terrified that, when the banks reopened, people wouldn’t trust them and hoard their money, collapsing the economy. So President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on the radio for a “Fireside Chat.”

“The success of our whole national program depends, of course, on the cooperation of the public — on its intelligent support and its use of a reliable system,” FDR said. “After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work.”

And that’s what happened. When the banks reopened, Americans returned “more than half of their hoarded cash to the banks within two weeks and by bidding up stock prices by the largest ever one-day percentage price increase,” explained William L. Silber, an economics professor at New York University. “Contemporary observers consider the Bank Holiday and the Fireside Chat a one-two punch that broke the back of the Great Depression.”

Trust convinced people to risk their savings, ending the Great Depression. It wouldn’t happen in a “South Park” world, but it happened in the real world. Humans also routinely band together to build roads, fund schools and pay firefighters.

“South Park” sees the world as zero-sum: my win is your loss. In a zero-sum world, no one would ever sacrifice soy sauce to save the planet, or money to build roads. But climate change isn’t a zero-sum problem. Instead, it might be what economists call a “collaboration problem.”

In collaboration problems, people can act selfishly, and all end up worse, or they can collaborate, and end up better. Neither choice is inevitable; it all depends on trust. If people trust each other, they’ll collaborate to make themselves and everyone else better off. Americans trusted FDR enough to return their money to banks. That took a greater leap of faith than making provisions to deal climate change. Losing your life saving is a much bigger risk than giving up beef, making planned obsolescence illegal or building bike lanes.

Humans can act together. We can inspire each other or, more simply, we can pass laws that make companies and individuals act in everyone’s best interest. Even if it means plain rice.