​​​On Climate Frankensteins and Sun Kings

​​​On Climate Frankensteins and Sun Kings
A commercial airline flies past the sun covered in haze made from smoke of Canadian wildfires in Washington on June 7, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Mark Hendrickson

When The Beatles sang the wispy, psychedelic tune “Sun King” on their Abbey Road album, I doubt that John Lennon—even on one of his wildest trips—envisioned scientists cooking up plans to block sunlight. Yet there are climate scientists today, apparently tripping out on apocalyptic visions of a boiling Earth, who are acting like would-be sun kings as they hatch grandiose plans to control how much of the sun’s rays reach Earth’s surface.

Two centuries ago, Mary Shelley expanded the frontiers of science fiction with her tale of Frankenstein, the mad scientist who dreamed of going one-up on nature by manufacturing his own man. Dr. Frankenstein succeeded—well, sort of. He got his creature, but it ended up killing him.

Today’s Frankensteins include scientists who dream that they can gain dominion over nature through the science of geoengineering, which they believe will enable them to regulate the global temperature. Their strategy involves injecting particles into the atmosphere for the purpose of reflecting a certain amount of the sun’s energy back into space rather than letting it warm the Earth. They call this “solar radiation management” (SRM).

What could possibly go wrong? I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer, but I can think of several problems with the theory of SRM engineering a supposedly more friendly climate.

Problem No. 1: What’s the “right,” or optimal, global temperature? This is both a scientific and a political question.

Scientifically, no climate models have yet demonstrated reliable predictions for the future, so how would geoengineers be able to calculate how much temperature impact any given amount of particles launched into space would have? First, existing climate models are so underdeveloped that, according to some German scientists, computer climate models assume that the Earth is flat. Would we want to bet that geoengineers can accurately calculate future climate scenarios when no climate model has come close to showing such capabilities? Second, “the climate system is more complex than the human brain,” (pdf) according to British scientist Richard Courtney, so it would be humongous hubris to believe one can fine-tune the climate.

Politically, I doubt that all Americans would agree on the optimal temperature for the United States. Polarization, anybody? As is so often the case, the cliché “one size doesn’t fit all” applies here. What if Florida becomes a little cooler and most people there like the change, but then New England suffers from severe cold, shortened growing seasons, and agricultural devastation?

We also need to consider international politics. Could we expect the various nations of the world to passively accept whatever the climate Frankensteins decide to do? This brings to mind Barack Obama’s comment that we Americans can’t just keep our homes heated at 72 degrees and expect the rest of the world to go along with that. It’s one thing to choose a temperature for one’s home; it’s quite another to choose a temperature for the world.

Problem No. 2: Geoengineers are uncertain about how fast the desired change in global temperatures would happen. One statement from the White House: “SRM offers the possibility of cooling the planet significantly on a timescale of a few years.” (pdf) That implies a lag between the time when they would start injecting particles into the atmosphere and when measurable cooling would take place. What if estimates of the time lag are mistaken? What would happen if it turns out that the stuff they put into the atmosphere in year one by itself ends up having the targeted effect in year three, but they kept adding more and more particles in years two and three before the effects of year one are known? Uh-oh. That brings us to a third problem.

Problem No. 3: Would geoengineering be reversible? What if we were to have one of those occasional years when massive volcanic eruptions spew enormous volumes of particles into the atmosphere and cool the planet? Can you imagine the consequences of volcanic emissions on top of human-launched particles designed to block out sunlight? Would there be an off-ramp—a way to reverse the process and bring human-launched particles back to Earth before the world cools into a deep freeze and the human race is decimated by a massive famine?

Problem No. 4: If geoengineers were to tamper with one level of the atmosphere (the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, ionosphere, and exosphere), how might that affect the interactions with other layers? Judging by how inaccurate computer climate models are, it seems pretty clear that even the “experts” don’t fully understand how our atmosphere works yet. It’s the only atmosphere we have. Do we want to treat it like a guinea pig?

Problem No. 5: How would scientists distinguish between temperature changes that resulted from their geoengineering and those that are the result of natural causes? Again, the potential for miscalculations is considerable.

Rather than rolling the dice with some Frankensteinian experiment, a much saner and safer approach to coping with undesired temperatures would be to let the problem be solved at the micro (individual) level rather than at the macro (global) level. The vast majority of Americans have heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. As the world continues to get wealthier, the availability of heating and cooling technologies at the household level has the potential to become virtually universal within a few decades. Then, when people think it feels too hot or too cool to suit them, they can adjust their thermostats accordingly.

Politicians who have grandiose visions of being “sun kings” should sober up. They need to resist the Frankenstein temptation to play “god” with the atmosphere. We can’t master nature, but we can cope with it. Just let people have the freedom and ability to plan what’s best for themselves.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Mark Hendrickson is an economist who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.