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Climate manipulation? Not all 'solutions' should be advanced

Climate manipulation? Not all 'solutions' should be advanced
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As the Biden-Harris administration advances an all-of-government approach to the worsening climate crisis, we need to acknowledge that not all proposed climate solutions should be advanced. Solar geoengineering, a controversial proposed set of technologies that could potentially cool the planet by reflecting incoming sunlight back to space, used to be on the fringes of climate policy. 

But with the recent release of a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) that recommends hundreds of millions of dollars be invested to establish a U.S. solar geoengineering research program, this dangerous approach is now being more seriously considered by some decision-makers. The U.S. government should not support solar geoengineering research, because advancing this climate intervention increases, rather than decreases, risks to humanity by distracting from and avoiding necessary systemic changes and enabling control of the climate system to rest in the hands of a few wealthy governments and other global elites.

The most popular solar geoengineering approach, known as Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (SAI), could potentially cool the planet quite quickly via modified, military-style aircraft that continually spray megatons of sulfur dioxide into the lower stratosphere to reflect some incoming sunlight back to space. To reduce the global temperature, this process would have to continue indefinitely at an estimated cost of about $18 billion per year per degree Celsius of cooling.  

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The March 25 release of the NASEM report recommends that the United States provide public funding to support research on both the technological details of how to reduce incoming solar radiation and on improved understanding about the societal and environmental risks of deploying solar geoengineering. Advancing research at the federal level moves this technology closer to deployment, but it remains unclear how further research without large-scale experimentation can reduce uncertainty about the complexity of the earth’s climate systems and the unmanageable and unpredictable global risks of this kind of climate manipulation

One basic problem with advancing solar geoengineering research is that any attempts to manipulate incoming solar radiation will have unequal and unpredictable global impacts on agriculture, the hydrological cycle, weather patterns and the monsoon systems. This means there is no way to deploy solar geoengineering without having disparate and uncertain impacts on food and water availability in communities around the world. Proponents of solar geoengineering research argue that more research is needed to better understand these impacts, and they suggest that it is possible that solar geoengineering could reduce food and water scarcity caused by climate change.

The problem with this argument is that it is already clear that global governance will never be able to equitably “manage” the distribution of weather changes throughout the world. This is often framed as a world with runaway climate change versus a world with solar geoengineering. Given this simplistic choice geoengineering does look more promising, but these are not the only two options: We can still reduce climate change without resorting to extreme technological manipulation of the climate system.   

Another set of social justice problems of advancing solar geoengineering technology, relates to governance, who is supporting the technology and who would gain control of the global thermostat. From a social justice perspective, any technology that enables a few powerful people or countries to have control over the rest of the world is dangerous.  Influential, wealthy elites — including Bill Gates and other billionaire tech-philanthropists — have been the most influential supporters of geoengineering research. This technological approach seems appealing to billionaires because it does not rely on systemic changes to end fossil fuel reliance so it maintains the business-as-usual economic structures that sustain their concentrated wealth and power. Recognizing these problematic power dynamics and the injustice of a powerful few advancing technologies that could manipulate the earth’s temperature, advocates around the world are mobilizing against this technocratic approach. 

Proponents of solar geoengineering research tend to couch solar geoengineering as a “humanitarian” technology that can “buy time” for market-friendly climate transitions and alleviate near-term climate suffering for the most vulnerable. Yet, this paternalistic form of humanitarianism tends to minimize or ignore what can and should be done to change the root causes of global poverty or climate vulnerability.

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Advancing solar geoengineering creates unmanageable risks and provides yet another mechanism for the wealthy and powerful to maintain the status quo. Before this technological climate fix is advanced any further, the dangerous power dynamics of engineering the planet need to be acknowledged to counter the technological optimism of solar geoengineering proponents who are staunch advocates for more research.  

Confronting the climate crisis requires deep systemic changes to reduce, rather than reinforce, the power and influence of the polluter elite — those who are profiting from our current exploitative and extractive fossil-fuel-based systems. Confronting the climate crisis requires structural changes to political and economic systems, and just, sustainable investments in people and communities.

By providing a way to manage climate change without the need for rapid structural change, solar geoengineering will likely suppress the kinds of systemic, transformative and socially just solutions proposed by the climate justice movement — those fighting for a just Green New Deal, the Sunrise Movement, those working at the intersection of environmental justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, among others.

Rather than invest in this potentially dangerous technological fix that detracts from other transformative solutions, the U.S. government should expand its investments in reducing fossil fuel reliance and provide direct support to communities most vulnerable to climate disruptions. Climate change is a dire crisis that requires centering social justice, human rights and public health to strive toward a more just, equitable and prosperous future for all. Engineering the world to fit the needs of the polluter elite will never achieve that goal.

Jennie C Stephens, author of “Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy” (Island Press, 2020), is director and professor at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs.  

Kevin Surprise is a visiting lecturer at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts.