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Terraforming Earth

What is the compelling question or challenge?

Mediating climate change through reduction of CO2, CH4 emissions is proving insufficient, with catastrophic impacts. Active geoengineering to remove greenhouse gases requires major research investment.

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Current international agreements to limit climate change to 2 degrees above previous baselines are already proving inadequate by the failure of individual nations to adhere to these protocols, and the impacts on climate already seen with current levels of planetary heating. The IPCC has recognized that geoengineering to impact climate change is a legitimate strategy, yet history has shown that human efforts to influence natural systems often have unintended and negative consequences, e.g. introduction of non-native species leading to serious ecosystem disruptions. Thus if we are to enter into active climate geoengineering, a major investment in research is required and planning for that investment as well as the experimental protocols necessary to achieve a reasonably predictable result must be a critical priority.

If we consider only the impact of CO2 on the climate system, at the current pace of development our ability to extract CO2 from the atmosphere using known and predicted technologies may only match the current rate of CO2 emissions by the year 2100. The aggregate effects of continued CO2 emissions over the next 82 years, coupled with predicted population and economic growth indicates this pace of technological development even if implemented immediately will not keep pace with emissions, leading to a planet that would be nearly unrecognizable by the end of this century.

Key research questions include:

1) What are the emerging technologies that may most efficiently extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, including hard engineered systems, conventional biological systems, bioengineered systems, and hybrid systems?

2) How would the carbon extracted by these processes best be sequestered?

3) Where should carbon extraction and sequestration systems best be located to have maximum impact?

4) How should such systems be powered? Are there emerging technologies in zero-carbon power generation that can be applied to geoengineering as well as to general power generation for society?

5) What is the impact of atmospheric carbon renewal on sea level rise, intensity of storms, and how might this process best be managed to achieve minimum disruption to the world economy and societal infrastructure?

6) How will engineered mediation of climate influence human population dynamics, the disruption of human population centers, and geopolitics as each country feels the impacts of geoengineered climate changes?

7) Can weaponization of geoengineered climate change be prevented?

8) What are the impacts of geoengineered climate change on terrestrial and marine plant and animal populations?

9) How do changes in atmospheric carbon impact geological processes and ocean acidification, and how would geoengineering for atmospheric carbon removal impact these processes and any related feedback loops?

10) What are the impacts of geoenegineered climate on the water supply for agriculture and for human populations?

11) What are the other impacts of geoenegineered climate change on agriculture, and can the process of removal of atmospheric carbon be optimized to support crop production?

12) Can the changes in sea ice cover with its impacts of shipping costs at high latitudes be predicted and managed? Reductions in arctic ice cover may come with significant economic advantages e.g. to China, Russia and to arctic coastal countries in general as new shipping lanes open, providing economic disincentives to international cooperation to mediate sea ice cover reductions.

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