Can Scientists Reverse Climate Change?
by JR Thorpe
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It's been a tough week for the climate: because President Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords altogether, the remaining countries at the G20 political summit were forced to cobble together a 'G19' statement. If that action left you wondering about the future of our environment, New York Magazine has a few answers: the magazine's new cover story features dozens of scientists speaking off the record to give us an honest idea of what they believe will happen if we don't get moving on global warming. Their answers are chilling: raging floods, refugee populations in the hundreds of millions, and large segments of the planet rendered uninhabitable. But before you lose hope entirely, know that scientists are working on ways to reverse climate change and combat some of the problems it's causing, from the rising ocean acidity levels to toxic soil.

Of course, many of these ideas are largely theoretical or have only been tested in the short-term — for instance, ocean fertilization, which hypothesizes that putting a huge amount of fertilizer into the sea will feed algae and in turn absorb CO2 from the air, has yielded great immediate gains, but it's completely unclear what it does over the long term. And many of the ideas — like the 2016 discovery that rainforest soil could be turned into valuable crop fields via an ancient West African technique that uses charcoal and kitchen waste — are more about helping people cope as best they can in a changing world than they are about reversing the horrific damage of climate change. However, others are hoping to tackle the consequences at their heart, and they while some of them sound like incredible long shots, they may also be our best shots.

Lasers Could Redirect The Sun's Rays

You know something has captured the public imagination when they make a disaster movie about it: Geostorm, an upcoming disaster thriller, is based around the idea of climate engineering, in which humans take direct control of weather events (in the film's case, through satellites, one of which goes rogue). In this case, truth is stranger than fiction — because in reality, various geo-engineers believe that lasers could be used to cool the planet and dispel the levels of greenhouse gases, mostly by being fired into the air at immense heights.

So how might lasers be able to help the environment? Some scientists theorize that in they future, they may be used to attempt to shift cloud structures by making them thicker. Blasting certain cloud particles into smaller pieces makes them more reflective; this would cause more sunlight to be reflected back into space, rather than shining down to earth.

But this method also has risks, because thicker clouds may also enclose more CO2. Fortunately, there's a laser for that too; other geo-engineers have proposed firing lasers from space at greenhouse gases to break them up into less harmful materials.

But people haven't exactly been jumping all over themselves to mount laser satellites. In 2016, Finnish scientists declared that the current state of science makes geo-engineering with lasers a bit too tricky to try, because we have no idea what the domino effects on food yields would be, and it would be horrendous to start laser treatment on the world's face and then suddenly have to stop it. Even Americans with charming movie-star grins and a hefty dose of derring-do probably couldn't stop the ensuing chaos.

House Paint Could Produce Clean Energy

Architecture that takes the environment into account has become a bit of a trend recently. Green walls have become quite popular as a way of producing better air quality in cities worldwide; you'll find them from Paris to Chicago (though they're still a bit too expensive to install in truly poor, polluted areas that might greatly benefit from them). And disused areas, like New York's now-fashionable High Line, are being converted into gardens. But some scientists are trying to take the trend one step furhter, and develop a paint that would actually help us power our homes.

Does that sound absurd to you? It's one of the possibilities offered by a new product called "solar paint," and it may be closer than we think. Obtaining clean energy sources with zero by-products can help us break our reliance on filthy fossil fuels, and everything from wind power to waves has been utilized to help us make the change. However, house paint is a new frontier and might prove to be the easiest option there is: researchers at RMIT in Melbourne have shifted the composition of normal paint so that, when exposed to sunlight and a bit of moist air, it creates hydrogen, a hugely powerful and useful source of energy, and collects it for use. One of its inventors told the website Futurism that “Any place that has water vapor in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel.” It could be on the market in five years, and would (hopefully) be both very cheap and very green to produce.

Fungi Could Make Our Plants Stronger

"Fungi" doesn't just mean mushrooms (or that disgusting stuff in your shower) — fungi are powerful organisms that play a role in a wide variety of natural functions, including the process of decay. And soon, they may play a major role in helping us fight climate change. Scientists have been utilizing the humble fungi in the fight against global warming, and mushroom-made biodegradable packaging and microbes that can detoxify soil (both here and on Mars) are just the beginning.

How fungi interact with plants are one of the big areas of current scientific exploration — it's been discovered that treating seeds with a particular kind of fungus can help them survive and flourish in poor soil without needing a lot of water (which could help conserve our water resources and support human populations), and that fungi-treated rice is a lot less vulnerable to stress. Most recently, scientists from British Columbia have theorized that fungi that have lain dormant for thousands of years in permafrost may become active again and help trees adapt to changing weather conditions. And certain kinds of fungi can help plants gobble up to 30 percent more greenhouse gas — giving them the potential to more effectively combat the greenhouse effect.

Kelp Could Absorb CO2

CO2 isn't just in the air; it's also in the water. And it's made things in there much more acidic — which creates problems for everything from large mammals to huge coral reefs to tiny shell-wearing crabs (the acidity wears away at their shells). What can we do about it?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the kelp — and in all other kinds of seaweed. It might not be automatically apparent, but sea grasses and plants are hugely active when it comes to getting CO2 out of water levels. "Seaweed," renowned environmental author Tim Flannery wrote in 2015, "is hugely productive, outstripping the fastest-growing land-based crops many times over in its rate of growth and CO2 absorption." And it's not just plant matter; tiny floating objects called phytoplankton are technically plants, and they absorb a lot of CO2, too. Experiments in 2016 have found that big belts of kelp and weed help to lower local acidity levels and provide a lovely environment for coral, manatees and all other marine life. Right now, scientists are running an experimental seaweed farm in Puget Sound to see whether the idea is viable for big-scale alterations.

While projects like these can't undo all the damage being caused right now by pollution, they offer the promise of a more hopeful future — or a future, period.