Truly Wild Ideas To Save The Planet

The increasingly stark realities of climate change have prompted a lot of crazy ideas to address the problem, whether it's "Come up with new regulations for corporations to inevitably circumvent," "Do nothing and hope it all just sort of works itself out," or even the truly wild "Ask people to reflect a little bit on their lifestyles, maybe." But if you think that no longer ordering four Amazon packages a week sounds wild, wait until you see what ideas the experts have cooked up ...

Advertisement

4
Let's Build A Giant Space Umbrella

When a person is at risk of harm from sun exposure, they just apply sunscreen or wear a hat. So why can't the planet do that? If a six-year-old asked you that question, you'd say "Well ... because ... it ..." then turn on some cartoons to distract them, while you pieced your brain back together. And sometimes those six-year-olds become scientists -- mad they never got an answer to that question -- who've grown up to formulate that exact plan.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

It's called a sunshade and operates under the premise that just a 4% reduction in sunlight reaching Earth would be enough to return us to pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures, while not also annihilating plant life or dooming us to an age of rickets and aggressive vampires. The suggested format has varied from a 1,250-mile wide glass shield to clouds of moon dust to 16 trillion butterfly-sized robots Voltron-ed into a 60,000-mile cylinder of transparent film and maintained by "shepherd dog satellites," but they have one thing in common: they all sound like a plot point from a Mass Effect game.

We're hoping for the glass shield, if only because it's the closest plan to just giving the Earth a pair of rad aviators.Mikael Haggstrom/Wikimedia CommonsWe're hoping for the glass shield, if only because it's the closest plan to just giving the Earth a pair of rad aviators.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

While more feasible than the suggestion to move the planet further from the sun with a massive explosion, any project that would give Arthur C. Clarke's ghost a raging erection still presents a considerable engineering challenge. The BBC helpfully informs us that "By far the greatest challenge is getting the sunshade into outer space," which is like saying that the greatest challenge in becoming Spider-Man is getting spider-powers.

Part of the problem is that the heavier something is, the harder and more expensive it becomes to send into space. So, of course, the proposed solution is to slam a giant electromagnetic gun into the side of a mountain and fire the material into the cosmos to be assembled there, bringing the cost down to mere trillions of dollars. No, the technology doesn't exist yet, but what else do you think America is going to build in the future? A functional social safety net? Don't be absurd. If you're lucky they'll test the mountain gun by blasting food bank donations at Detroit.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

There's also the cheap and boring option of merely shooting a bunch of sulfur into the atmosphere, probably with some dumb normal gun, to simulate the aftermath of a gigantic volcanic eruption. In terms of temperature control, this would probably work well as we have enough data on how volcanoes affect the global climate to adjust God's thermostat with considerable nuance. The real concern is that there would somehow be unintended consequences, like a few countries experiencing more climate problems even as the rest of the world benefits. Now, these are all theoretical, "break glass in case of imminent apocalypse" plans, meaning you probably won't see sunshades in the news anytime soon. But you for sure will see our new young adult trilogy about a climate war sparked by the eruption of an artificial mega-volcano.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

3
Let's Dump Millions Of Pounds Of Iron Into The Ocean

The ocean is cool and all, but honestly, what has it ever done for us? Okay, sure, it's a "bountiful source of food" and "helped give rise to life as we know it," but we're not about to just let it coast by on the strength of its old accomplishments. It needs to start pulling its weight in this day and age too.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

That's where the concept of iron fertilization comes in. The logic works like this: plankton needs iron to grow, once it grows it consumes carbon dioxide, and once it dies it falls to the ocean floor, taking the carbon with it, in a very literal example of a carbon sink. But the ocean's not exactly teeming with iron, so if we add giant piles of iron sulfite we'll sink more carbon.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

The idea has been around since the '90s, with the greatest criticism being that there's really no way to tell if it will work unless it's attempted, and dumping millions of pounds of iron into the ocean isn't exactly an "Eh, let's give it a whirl and see what happens" kind of idea. Small scale experiments using a few thousand pounds have produced mixed results (it's hard to measure how much carbon is actually captured), and there are also concerns that providing delicious iron might instead create algal blooms which, despite the pretty name, kills marine life by sucking up all the oxygen.

Plus they are, to use the proper scientific term, Super yucky.Trieu Tuan/ShutterstockPlus they are, to use the proper scientific term, "Super yucky."

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

One rogue, possibly illegal experiment was especially controversial, as businessman Russ George had 200,000 pounds of iron sulfate dumped into the Pacific Ocean without bothering to tell anyone. Plankton did grow, but it's unclear how much carbon was captured because the experiment treated the concept of the scientific method as a vague suggestion. There was a boom in the salmon population the following year just like George had hoped, but anyone not named George with even a shred of expertise called it a coincidence.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Still, the idea does have more credible supporters. We may even have been running a grand geoengineering experiment without realizing it, as the very forest fires and fuel burnings that are contributing to climate change also release iron. A lot of it appears to end up in the ocean, but studies are only just now producing the data that we (and by we, we mean people way smarter than us) need to get a sense of the magnitude of distribution. There would need to be an overwhelming scientific consensus before this became an actual solution, but if Iron Man gets rebranded as an environmental superhero a decade from now you heard it here first.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

2
Let's Blast Trillions Of Tons Of Snow Onto Antarctica

Problem: rising temperatures are threatening the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet, its collapse would be a massive contribution to rising waters that could see major coastal cities sink below sea level over the coming centuries, and the process appears to already be so far along that mere emission cuts will not reverse it. Solution: make Antarctica so goddamn cold that nothing can melt.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

This would be accomplished by spraying trillions of tons of snow onto the continent, utterly baffling countless penguins in the process. The snow would be created by 12,000 wind turbines fuelling seawater pumps that would move 7.4 trillion tons of water through snow cannons over the course of a decade, reinforcing the ice sheet and producing a stronger, more confident Antarctica that's ready to handle all our crap. But the side-effects on the local marine life would likely be significant, so if that's not to your liking you could instead consider an alternate plan of building 300-meter tall artificial islands around threatened ice sheets and glaciers to keep ice in and warm water out.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

If this proposal sounds ludicrous -- well, that's the point. As difficult, expensive, and generally absurd as the idea of draining a chunk of the ocean to help Antarctica pack on the pounds may sound, it's a hell of a lot cheaper and easier than having to evacuate and relocate the populations of Shanghai and New York City down the line. This plan will almost certainly never come to fruition, but it's the kind of thinking we have to embrace if don't we want our descendants to think of West Virginia as being on the east coast.

1
Let's Plant A Trillion Trees

As you hopefully remember from elementary school, trees absorb carbon dioxide. So why not solve climate change by just planting, like, a gazillion of them? Well, that would be ridiculous, because a gazillion isn't a real number. But a trillion is, and that's what a study in Science (if you're not familiar, they're noted for their science) suggests could remove almost 25% of the CO2 in the atmosphere.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

A trillion trees would be a forest the size of the continental United States. But there's room to scatter that many trees around the world without impacting existing cities and farmland, primarily in Russia, Canada, Brazil, Australia, China and the parts of the US no one uses (like West Virginia). And no, that wouldn't mean seeing wall to wall trees the moment you left town -- there are an estimated three trillion trees on the planet already.

This could be both the cheapest way to combat climate change, and the most immediately effective, as young trees suck up more carbon than their less ravenous elders. And while not exactly a project that could be completed overnight, it would be relatively cheap and straightforward, especially since the barriers to international cooperation are lower when it comes to mass tree planting than to radically restructuring economies.

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement

Continue Reading Below

Advertisement


Especially when a project of that scale is bound to produce lots of new jo ... oh. Never mind.

There are a couple of caveats here. First, even the idea's staunchest supporters make it clear that this is just a first step to buy us time while we cut carbon emissions by weaning ourselves off of oil and coal. Second, coverage of this idea included CBS writing the sentence "If a tree falls in a forest, will replanting it help curb global warming?" which makes us want to scrap the whole thing out of spite. But what everyone does agree on is that current mass deforestation, like what's being seen in the Amazon, is taking us in the exact wrong direction. So if you want to do your part to combat climate change, consider planting a tree. And then, like, several thousand more.

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

To turn on reply notifications, click here

61 Comments

Load Comments