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The planet is getting hotter. I know some people don't believe that, and if that describes you, well OK, but come on, man. I'm not going to try to convince you here, because if you've made it this far in life without being convinced about global warming, an article on a yuks-and-chuckles website isn't going to make any difference. But! We're not going to get much farther unless we all start from the same page, so if you want to keep reading, we're going to need to accept the global warming thing for a few minutes.

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If you need any further convincing, this stock photo of a melting Earth should clinch it.

Anyways, the Earth is getting hotter. But what if, through some insane feat of engineering, we found a way to stop this? Not by doing something sensible like cutting carbon emissions. That's boring. What if we could make something cool and kind of reckless? Like something the fucking A-Team would weld up in a barn? Could we stop global warming with something like that?

Actually, yes, probably. It's called geoengineering. I'm not exactly an expert on the matter, but I do shout obscenities at the sun every day, and I also got way, way too deep into this very topic while doing research for my latest novel, Freeze/Thaw (out today, coincidentally). Here's how it could be done, and also how we'll almost certainly fuck it all up.

Marine Cloud Brightening

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How It Could Work:

Clouds are generally white. A brown one means you've got a dust storm, a black one means you're dealing with a volcano or an old Volkswagen, and a red one means Sauron is on the march. But for the most part, the regular ones are all white. And that's helpful, because white clouds reflect more sunlight than the blue water of the ocean, sending those damned sun rays back into space where they can fuck up someone else's planet. Which means that anything which leads to more clouds over the ocean should lead to a more reflective and ultimately cooler Earth.

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Making clouds is easy in theory. There are a few ways of doing it, most of which involve spraying sea water in the air -- say with fans, or ultrasonic waves, or a whole bunch of dudes with jet skis. And it could be pretty effective. One study has suggested that only 1,000 of these weird ships would be enough to halt the effects of global warming.

Could It Backfire Horribly?

Oh my goodness, yes.

This is actually one of the tamer methods on this list, largely because it's just messing about with seawater, and we've already got a pretty good handle on what clouds do (angels sit on them). But anything which has a large enough effect to halt global warming could have a large enough effect to do lots of things. We've certainly never done this before, and it's close to impossible to model all the possible consequences. A global reduction in temperature might happen, at the cost of unpredictable and negative local effects. Would all that extra moisture in the air change weather patterns? Mess with the aquatic food chain? Will it confuse the stupid birds?

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That problem is going to show up a lot in this article. Basically, the Earth's ecosystem is complicated, and monkeying around with one aspect can have unpredictable effects elsewhere. Admittedly, this particular system should be reversible. If something goes strange, like all the whales up and leave the ocean or cats start laying eggs or something, we could just turn off the spitting boats and hopefully everything would go back to normal in a few days. But it's still a big ask, and seeing as this would effect the entire world, we should probably come to some kind of consensus before doing it.

Getting seven billion people to agree on something shouldn't be hard.

Stratospheric Aerosol Injection

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How It Could Work:

Aerosols are little bits of dust and blobs of liquid that float around in the air. When you sneeze on someone, that's an aerosol, and also rude. They can be basically anything, but the aerosols we're most interested in for this particular scheme are variants of sulfur. When floating around in the atmosphere, sulfates are slightly reflective, which means that if we could get a whole bunch of them up there, we could get some of that dreaded sunshine to go away.

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Get the fuck out of here, sunshine.

The nice thing about this technique is that there are already sulfates in the atmosphere; a bunch get sprayed up there every time a volcano explodes. And we already have actual measured evidence of their effects. In 1991, following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, there was a significant reduction in global temperatures.

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Thanks, volcanoes?

Also, unlike some of the other more exotic techniques on this list, stratospheric aerosol injection uses technology which actually exists. Spray bottle and airplane technology are pretty well understood by this point. There are details to be worked out, because ugh, man, injecting thousands of tons of chemicals into the atmosphere always has details. But it can be done. Various proposals have suggested using balloons, aircraft, or goddamned artillery to do the job.

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Yeah, sure, let's shoot our way out of another damn problem. Nice one, humanity.

Could It Backfire Horribly?

Oh my goodness, yes.

Aside from the unpredictable ecosystem problems that are going to crop up every time us chimps monkey with the entire planet, there are a few issues specific to this technique. Sulfates in the upper atmosphere can deplete the ozone layer, which we kind of need to not turn into mutants. Sulfates in the lower atmosphere also contribute to acid rain. Admittedly, this technique entails injecting into the upper atmosphere, where'd they float around longer and stay out of the way, but it's something to be considered. I mean, what are the odds we'd spray millions of tons of chemicals in the air without making some mistakes?

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I'm sure we'll find a way to shoot the mistakes.

Also, the sky knows no laws. When you spray stuff up there, it will blow around -- meaning this technique could have effects which vary widely with geography. Some areas could get much cooler or rainier or apocalypticier than others.

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Carbon Removal

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How It Could Work:

The current accepted prescription for dealing with global warming is to reduce our carbon emissions. The reason the Earth is getting hotter in the first place is the greenhouse effect caused by a couple hundred years of filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and cow farts. But that sounds like hard work. Is there a way we could continue pumping carbon into the sky like assholes, but just Mr. Wizard it out of there somehow? Well, it turns out there is, and it starts with something we've all got in our back yards.

Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images
"What is up, my animal bitches!"

That's right. Plants. All those leaves and branches and delicious, brightly-colored berries are made out of carbon. Plants suck carbon dioxide out of the air all the time. It's basically the only thing they can do. The main problem with plants is that they also die all the time, and when they do, they release all that carbon back into the air as they decompose. Bigger plants, like trees, can lock the carbon away a little more permanently, as can plants buried in mudslides.

CoreyFord/iStock/Getty Images
Thanks again, volcanoes?

But this basic ingredient of plant corpses forms the basis of a few other geoengineering solutions. First, we can simply burn biomass in place of some of our existing fossil fuels, which somewhat reduces the amount of carbon we produce. Combining that with carbon capture technology -- think like a big sock or something on the exhaust pipe -- can result in a net reduction in atmospheric carbon. The captured carbon then gets injected into the ground. Alternate technologies burn dead plants and turn them into a charcoal product which can be spread over the soil as a fertilizer.

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Even more advanced technologies try to imitate plants, creating what are essentially artificial trees that use fans and chemical processes to capture carbon straight from the air.

Could It Backfire Horribly?

Oh my goodness, yes.

Anything which requires biomass needs a lot of it to have any practical effect. We already have some waste biomass in the world we could use -- stuff we grow that we don't normally have a use for, like some grasses or corn husks or goddamned mushrooms. But we would need so much of it that the temptation would always be there to begin growing a specific crop to satisfy our fuel needs, and all sorts of potential problems show up when you start growing a lot of a particular crop.

The variants that use artificial trees, like some kind of Forest 2.0, would themselves need a lot of energy to run, which is one of the problems that got us into this whole carbon mess in the first place. There are ways around that, but if we're not careful, we'll end up burning coal to power our electric plants to take the carbon out of the air which we just put there.

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And there's one other carbon removal scheme which we need to talk about, but it's so specific that it really deserves its own entry ...

Ocean Iron Fertilization

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How It Could Work:

Plants aren't the only things which suck carbon out of the air. Algae -- which are basically plants without ambition -- do the same thing. An algal bloom, aside from looking gross and feeling grosser, can draw lots and lots of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. So the theory with this geoengineering technique is that by dumping nutrients (iron in particular) into the ocean, we can trigger a sudden bloom of algae -- more specifically, phytoplankton. Then when the plankton die, because fuck 'em, they'll sink to the bottom of the ocean floor, locking the carbon away nice and good.

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"We'll never forget you, plankt-- Hey, what's on TV?"

Could It Backfire Horribly?

Oh my goodness, yes.

Plankton are a food source for larger animals, and the effects of dumping a big pot of food into the ocean are a little unknown. Maybe it will result in all the fish and squids and aquamen doing really well. Or maybe it will result in just one of them doing well, and then killing the rest.

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Ecosystems, man. They'll get you.

One effect of algal blooms which definitely is known is the massive oxygen depletion which can result. When the plankton die and decompose, this process uses up oxygen, which can suffocate any little fishies that are swimming nearby.

You can potentially deal with this by doing small experiments first, and then checking to see if a thousand goddamned fish float to the surface. But the problem there is that water moves, and low oxygen or other toxic conditions could float around under the ocean's surface doing damage out of sight. Considering that, and a host of other problems which kind of come with dumping chemicals in the goddamned ocean, most scientists studying this are advocating a pretty cautious approach for the time being.

Which hasn't stopped some crazy motherfuckers. Like this one guy who planned to dump 100 tons of iron off the Galapagos Islands to test exactly this theory, and also just for fun, sell the resulting carbon capture as credits on the carbon market. He was stopped that time, but like some kind of Batman villain, he showed up a few issues later to do the exact same thing, this time in Canada, and this time successfully.

And did it result in the ecosystem rising up and destroying Canada?

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Would you have noticed if it did?

No. In fact, a whole bunch of salmon appeared about a year later, which is a strong sign that his lunatic plan at least partially worked. There are a lot of other factors that could have been at play there, so please please please don't take this as blanket permission to dump interesting things in the ocean. Just, you know, buckle up. This probably isn't the last time someone conducts science experiments on a sizable chunk of the planet.

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Solar Shades

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How It Could Work:

Our final idea is probably the most straightforward one to understand; the kind of thing an idiot would come up with if tasked with "blocking the sun's rays." You just put something solid between us and the sun. Done. Next.

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We're back to this, basically.

The problem with that is that the Earth is big -- almost twice as big as the largest sunglasses currently on the market. And even if we could make something big enough, we'd have to get it into space, which we're not too good at yet. At the moment, it costs about $10,000 a pound to get something into orbit. And even if we managed that (say with a space elevator) and shipped up billions of really tiny sunglasses into space instead of one really big pair, we'd need to keep them between the sun and Earth somehow. Which isn't trivial, because the Earth moves.

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Come back here, you.

There are places in the solar system where we can actually put stuff to keep it between the sun and Earth, but the orbits aren't totally stable, and our sunglasses would need to be able to hold their position. So in short, we've got about eight pieces of pretty speculative science fiction necessary to make this scheme running. But if we did all that, well, it could actually work.

Could It Backfire Horribly?

Oh my goodness, yes.

This is the one I wrote about in my novel, Freeze/Thaw, because it involved billions of robot sunglasses in space, and given the choice, one must always write about robot sunglasses in space.

What are you even doing, Jane Austen?

Like every other entry on this list, this scheme could cause any number of strange effects to the ecosystem. And then there's obviously the cost -- in money and, sadly, carbon emissions -- to get all those sunglasses up there. Also, this scheme suffers from the problem that it might not be as reversible as some of the other proposals. A cloud blows away pretty quick, and a bunch of dead fish can be swept up, but billions of sunglasses in space could just stay there, maybe doing too good a job, triggering a tipping point which sends the Earth into a rapid cooling phase. That's the premise of my novel, anyway. Which again, by some amazing coincidence, comes out today, and is linked in almost every word of this sentence.

In conclusion, we probably shouldn't mess with the entire planet unless we're really sure we know what we're doing, or there's really nothing else to do that day. Any thinkers, world leaders, or interested laypeople would also be well advised to buy my book, which is full of chuckles, thrills, and grave, hilarious portents.

Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and your best friend. The author of the science fiction novel Severance, his next novel, Freeze/Thaw is out right now! Join him on Facebook or Twitter.

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