Crazy Global Warming Solution Ideas

post by Bound_up · 2015-10-24T07:12:41.039Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 42 comments

Mine was to work tax policy to incentivize companies to make all their packaging shiny and white, incentivize people to litter, and disincentivize everybody from recycling.


My friend's was to use a giant rocket to push the earth farther away from the sun


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comment by gjm · 2015-10-24T08:44:26.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We might regret pushing out the earth's orbit when the present interglacial period ends. (Also, careful: to push the earth's orbit further out you don't want to be pushing the earth further out directly; that will just make a more elongated orbit. You need to push mostly along the earth's direction of travel.)

Make a little Dyson swarm (maybe somewhere further in than the orbit of Mercury) to reduce how much of the sun's output reaches us in a form that can get through our atmosphere.

Apply genetic engineering to our crops, our food animals, and (at least for people in hotter regions) ourselves, to cope happily with higher temperatures. (And gradually move in away from the coasts, and learn to be less worried by hurricanes.)

Painting roofs and roads and things white (an obvious extension of the bright-white-litter idea) has actually been not-so-crazily suggested. I don't know how it compares as a solution with turning them all into solar panels in order to reduce the amount of CO2 we need to make for energy generation.

Construct lots of gigantic heatsinks, attached to the earth but stretching up above the atmosphere.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-24T15:15:03.172Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Construct lots of gigantic heatsinks, attached to the earth but stretching up above the atmosphere.

Wouldn't the heatsinks need to have very high temperature conductivity? Do we have suitable materials today? Are we talking about mountain-masses of superconductors?

Replies from: Tem42, gjm
comment by Tem42 · 2015-10-24T15:25:18.644Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

| Wouldn't the heatsinks need to have very high temperature conductivity?

I don't think so. If you were to build /very tall/ tubes arching up into the upper atmosphere and cycle water through them (warm water up, cooling, and them travelling back down the other side of the arch), you could easily make them out of insulated concrete and still have to worry about freezing rather than lack of cooling. Of course, the problem then becomes what material can build this sort of structure, balancing height with throughput to prevent freezing.

But over long time periods, I think that you would also have to worry about the heat sinks evaporating the upper levels of the atmosphere.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-24T17:53:18.954Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you transfer the heat to the atmosphere, it won't leave the Earth+atmosphere system, so the net effect will be zero. To actually cool the earth, you'd need to heat the atmosphere enough to make parts of it escape Earth's gravity. Aside from problematic effects on weather, this would be really hard because the upper atmosphere is very thin and so has low heat capacity and low heat conductance.

I was thinking about direct-radiation heatsinks: the inner part made of super-heat-conductive material that transports heat from ground level to a huge radiator fan in outer space, insulated by an outer layer on the way up (otherwise you lose all the heat to the atmosphere). But it would have to be both superconducting and very, very large.

Also, the cooling effect would be localized at the bottom end, so what would you stick it into? A volcano?

Replies from: satt
comment by satt · 2015-10-27T02:50:06.748Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you transfer the heat to the atmosphere, it won't leave the Earth+atmosphere system, so the net effect will be zero. To actually cool the earth, you'd need to heat the atmosphere enough to make parts of it escape Earth's gravity.

Depends how high you send the heat, I would've thought...? If you ferry the heat above the current effective emission-to-space height (the mesosphere should suffice), you warm that high-up air and raise the effective emission-to-space height. Assuming a fixed lapse rate, a cooler surface temperature follows.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-27T21:44:21.607Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm a mad scientist, not a real one. I can't make a complex model that predicts the effects of heating up the mesosphere by a degree in terms of changes in both outgoing heat radiation, reflection and absorption of sunlight, etc. I can only make a very simple model of radiating directly into space from a really, really, really big mad space radiator.

So you may well be right; I don't know.

Replies from: satt
comment by satt · 2015-10-29T03:38:03.923Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair enough, haha. I figured there was a non-trivial chance you were right and I was wrong, because it's been years since I studied this stuff systematically and my memory of it isn't great.

comment by gjm · 2015-10-24T15:58:55.018Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Allow me to draw your attention to the first word in the title of the thing we're commenting on.

Yes, I think they would need to conduct well. I don't think they'd need to be superconductors. I have made no attempt to do the calculations that would be needed to figure out what would actually be needed.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-24T17:54:01.408Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But are you thinking about direct radiation at the upper end, or evaporating water into outer space with Earth-escape velocity, or something else? See also my other comment.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-10-24T21:31:57.551Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking direct radiation, and assuming that either (1) they go deep as well as high, cooling down the magma or something, or (2) we plug them into some kind of huge mesh of highly-heat-conductive stuff all over the earth, or most likely (3) we just let the wind do its job: if some region is being cooled relative to the surrounding region, you'll get winds blowing that will equalize the temperature somewhat.

But, once again: crazy ideas.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-24T15:04:08.777Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We should beware solutions we can't easily reverse or fine-tune in the future. The perfect solution would combine powerful output (cool the earth by 1 degree in a few years) with rapid fine tuning (we realize that wasn't a good idea and want to heat it up again by 0.5 degrees in the next year).

Here are some plausible rapid-response mad science ideas:

  • Swarm of small solar sails around the Earth, directly controlled like other satellites, which can fold or rotate on edge to let in more sunlight as required. Use them to effectively shorten or dim each day. Powered by sunlight and in unstable orbits so that when each sat fails, it escapes the Earth's gravity, to avoid creating more space debris in orbit.

  • Gene-engineer rapidly growing colonies of small (plankton-like) mollusks floating on the ocean surface. Individuals have heavy shells counterbalanced by floating aids (e.g. internal airsacs). After adults spawn, they die and sink; turnover is so rapid that most of them reach the ocean bottom uneaten, sequestering carbon. Keep the engineered plankton eater in reserve.

  • Seed the upper atmosphere with particulate matter to create a short-lasting global cooling effect similar to a large volcanic eruption.

Replies from: passive_fist
comment by passive_fist · 2015-10-25T21:16:59.914Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's fair to say that the impact on the ocean of such huge numbers of mollusks would be disastrous.

As for simulating a volcanic eruption, it would have an unpredictable effect on plant and animal life, possibly making global warming much worse once the clouds dissipated.

The solar sail idea is interesting but there is a large potential for abuse.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2015-10-24T12:10:40.129Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you see as productive in asking this question?

Replies from: Tem42
comment by Tem42 · 2015-10-24T13:44:20.698Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While we're meta, perhaps a better placement for this would be in a new Crazy Idea thread. The last one was quite popular.

comment by Dagon · 2015-10-26T15:35:21.058Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't try to slow the change or stabilize the environment - instead get better at adaptation.

If we live in the sea anyway, rising sea levels aren't harmful. If we (and our main food supplies) can survive in a range of temperatures, we do so rather than trying to control the temperatures. As an added benefit, if we're more adaptable, it likely makes it way easier to colonize (by having to terraform a bit less) other planets.

hey, you said "crazy". Note that this probably shouldn't be either/or, it could be in parallel with stabilizing/controlling the environment.

comment by CellBioGuy · 2015-10-24T15:21:44.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Use significantly less energy per capita.

Replies from: James_Miller, Viliam
comment by James_Miller · 2015-10-24T18:25:06.050Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By quickly growing the human population?

comment by Viliam · 2015-10-24T16:27:19.939Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have significantly less capita.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-24T17:54:45.054Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That would make you use more energy per capita. What you want is less total energy, not less capita.

comment by roland · 2015-10-25T11:17:42.137Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Plant trees. I wonder why this is not incentivized more, would be the ideal low-tech way to sequester CO2 and at the same time improve the landscape.

Replies from: passive_fist, None
comment by passive_fist · 2015-10-25T21:09:16.019Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most sources I've read suggest that planting even very large numbers of trees would not do much to offset global warming, as mature forests have very little net CO2 sequestration effect. I've also read that the heating caused by the increased albedo of tree leaves offsets even the small gains from this one-time absorption.

Intuitively, it's fairly easy to see why any scheme for removing CO2 from the atmosphere is doomed to failure -- the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is fairly low and you're working against entropy to remove it. This leads to very high energy consumption per unit mass of CO2 (far, far higher than the energy extracted from burning the fuel which created the CO2) which pretty much offsets any gains that you obtained by removing the CO2. The key is not to put CO2 there in the first place.

I'd love to be proven wrong about the argument to plant trees, as I'd personally love to see more trees around.

Replies from: None, None, roland
comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-29T10:44:07.988Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a crazy thought: plant parks, collect leaves in the fall, bioleach metals like germanium and gallium from them using chemolithotrophic bacteria (maybe after burning them and using the heat for energy, and the CO2 from burning can go to liquid cultures producing methane or something).

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-26T09:13:22.606Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sphagnum bogs trap CO2, we just need a way to keep mosquitoes from breeding there:)

comment by roland · 2015-10-26T13:34:25.509Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

mature forests have very little net CO2 sequestration effect

Planting trees in forests won't make much difference. Planting trees in barren lands probably will make a difference, no?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-25T13:14:39.777Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[In Kyiv] the relevant authorities seem to find it more profitable to plant trees yearly than to nurture them into growth, and other people just see trees die and shrug thinking, so they don't grow.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2015-10-25T13:58:45.647Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Increase the rate at which lower layers of the ocean exchanges heat with the upper layers (and thus the atmosphere). The rate at which the earth is differentially absorbing heat due to AGW is small compared to the total heat capacity of the ocean - based on current rates, we'll get about one degree of warming in 300 years if the full heat capacity of the ocean is brought into play.

Replies from: passive_fist
comment by passive_fist · 2015-10-25T21:19:58.165Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Life in the ocean depends on maintaining heat gradients. There's a term for when the deeper layers of the ocean start mixing with warm surface and coastal waters - "algal bloom". Algal blooms are dangerous and usually wind up killing a large amount of marine life. Among other things, this could cause global warming to become much worse.

comment by turchin · 2015-10-25T08:56:01.274Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nuclear explosions inside supervolcanos could result in temporary volcanic winter and stop runaway global warming The same could be done by large fires in forests in taiga in Siberia.

But injecting water in the upper stratosphere may be cheapest solution as it will result in small but reflective ice clouds.

Replies from: entirelyuseless
comment by entirelyuseless · 2015-10-25T12:51:21.557Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I doubt you could set off a supervolcano with such a method, but if you did, you would have a lot more to worry about than global warming.

Replies from: turchin
comment by turchin · 2015-10-25T14:25:16.666Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It may be smaller volcano like Pinatubo or remote one. But the main thing is urgency. If we have runaway global warming starting from methane release, any method is good.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-10-24T12:44:42.238Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

See also the recent and related slashdot post about the same.

comment by roland · 2015-10-27T23:32:34.185Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Super crazy: nuclear decontamination. Get rid of 90% of the humans, let the remaining 10% live.

comment by passive_fist · 2015-10-24T10:02:50.001Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Build a giant air conditioner in space and point it towards the Earth.

(Hey, it's just as plausible as expanding the orbit of the entire planet...)

Replies from: JoshuaZ
comment by JoshuaZ · 2015-10-24T12:10:06.236Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Expanding the orbit of the Earth works under the known laws of physics but wouldn't be practically doable at all. A giant air conditioner wouldn't work for simple physics reasons.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-24T15:11:36.767Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why wouldn't a giant AC work? Admittedly, you'd need to connect it to the Earth, not just "point it" at us. But an AC is basically a system that uses energy to move heat around; the trick is building one that puts the warm-air exhaust outside the lower atmosphere and gives it escape velocity.

For instance, as long as we're talking mad science, if we could build a space elevator with a big pool of water at the upper end as its counterbalance, cooled by evaporating into space (and maybe by contact with the upper atmosphere?), with a series of tubes connecting the pool with the sea below, then we could run an AC cycle: send warm seawater up, get almost-freezing water down. Of course we'd need a huge throughput to affect global temperature, but the principle is sound :-)

Replies from: JoshuaZ
comment by JoshuaZ · 2015-10-24T20:12:49.774Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that would work. I think I was reacting to the phrasing more and imagined something more cartoonish, in particularly where the air conditioner is essentially floating in space.

Replies from: DanArmak
comment by DanArmak · 2015-10-24T23:04:58.213Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So something like "put a big fan on the Moon and point it at the Earth" :-)

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-10-24T12:42:26.932Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that global warming is a problem right now with storms and flooding but does that hold in the looong run? I mean earth has apparently been cooling down since millions of years and the biosphere could benefit from some temperature increase, or do I read this wrong?:

(yes that might be looking into the future/past too far, but we are in a crazy idea thread, or not?)

Replies from: CellBioGuy
comment by CellBioGuy · 2015-10-25T00:09:50.865Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rate of change is the big thing, not necessarily absolute level.

The closest analog for what's going on now and will probably continue to go on for ~100,000 years is the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) . Though we may be altering the atmosphere up to two orders of magnitude faster than that one did.

comment by D_Alex · 2015-10-26T03:00:24.719Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do we really need crazy ideas when we have good ideas that just need to be implemented? For example, transitioning to an "electric economy" as proposed in Elon Musk's Powerwall launch:

Replies from: tut
comment by tut · 2015-10-26T09:13:21.353Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Powerwall" is just a big battery. It might help compensate for the irregularities of solar and wind power. But it only makes sense to use batteries for that after we have moved to much more renewables. It is much more efficient to store the power in the water magazines of existing hydro plants.

Replies from: D_Alex
comment by D_Alex · 2015-10-27T03:04:27.970Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Powerwall" is just a big battery.

Yes... plus some electronics, like a rectifier, an inverter and control circuitry.

It might help compensate for the irregularities of solar and wind power.

Yes... that's partly what is was conceived to do. It also can compensate for the irregularities in demand.

But it only makes sense to use batteries for that after we have moved to much more renewables.

For storage of solar and wind power, this is a complex matter, and the short answer is "it depends". For demand management, it makes sense now.

It is much more efficient to store the power in the water magazines of existing hydro plants.

It is desirable to use hydro plants (where they exist) as swing producers. Pumped storage is not quite as energy-efficient as battery storage (roughly 75% for pumped vs 85% for Li batteries), though it can be cost-effective, in places where large, elevated reservoirs already exist.

But all this is besides the point, which is: There are proposals to "solve" global warming, which are implementable now, with today's technology, which furthermore have side effects which are on balance positive (like clean air in the cities).