A dangerous distraction: Increasing climate risk with solar geoengineering

A dangerous distraction: Increasing climate risk with solar geoengineering
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As society struggles to step up to the challenges posed by the climate change freight train and its impacts on health, safety, the economy and the environment, every possible solution is on the table. While we already have the technology to transition away from burning fossil fuels, the cause of rapid climate change, some scientists and wealthy donors doubt that we will do so. For that reason, we are seeing more frequent investments in efforts to mask the effects of global warming until the problem can be solved. First among these is what is known as solar geoengineering.

Solar geoengineering is a misnomer used to describe efforts to reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the lower atmosphere and thereby counteract the greenhouse effect that has led to rapid climate change. Such projects are controversial, in science and non-science circles, for three main reasons.

1) Tinkering with the atmosphere is what got us into this climate crisis in the first place, and is seen as fraught with menacing uncertainties about impacts to very complicated global atmospheric and hydrologic systems. Some scientists argue that this is why it must be researched, though hopefully never deployed.

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2) Solar geoengineering will affect some regions and populations differently than others, with dramatic implications for vulnerable economies. Some areas already threatened by unending drought or extreme heat may see more of the same or worse, while other areas may be slightly cooled. This raises obvious social justice concerns. Some scientists argue that this is another reason to study these methods. Yet others, understanding the social risks but not equity or the state of global finance, have suggested the creation of a fund to compensate those parties.

3) Opponents of this type of research argue that even preliminary research into such extreme measures could be used by fossil fuel interests, and society at large, to justify continued greenhouse gas emissions. This tendency is illustrated in recent efforts on the part of fossil fuel companies like Shell Oil to describe nonexistent technologies, such as carbon capture, as effective means to increasingly offset, and therefore allow, some of their emissions.

These concerns focus on scientific uncertainty, inequity and moral hazard, but perhaps the most convincing argument against such research is a description of a society that grows dependent upon solar geoengineering to persist.

In such a world the existential fear of a rapidly changing climate is replaced by the existential fear of a disruption in massive solar geoengineering efforts, whether they be internationally sanctioned or not. The risk of the geoengineering Band-Aid falling off would grow each year, as emissions continue and masking the effects grows more difficult. Fear of “termination shock,” the rapid and accumulated return of warming due to a disruption in geoengineering efforts, would ensure increasing investments in masking global warming. Global inequities would likely increase as poorer countries lose control over investments in these methods and therefore the scope or intent.

Ocean-based economies, employing 12 percent of the planet’s workers and the primary source of protein for 3 billion people, would no longer exist because solar geoengineering did nothing to abate the ocean acidification caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

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Such a dystopian vision can be avoided entirely if society uses existing technology to quickly transition away from fossil fuels. Such a transition is not cheap, but it is far cheaper than not doing so, and a world that doesn’t depend on maintaining an artificial shield from the sun is a far more attractive vision for society.

Nonetheless, the research continues. In the Arctic alone we hear of artificially re-freezing sea ice, marine cloud brightening, and masking techniques such as the distribution of glass microbeads on sea ice. The desperation driving such research is understandable, we face an immense problem in climate change. But at a time when we know exactly what we must do, and the only lacking element is political will, it seems incredibly foolish to invest in and conduct experiments that, at best, only distract from the goal and at worst, create dangerous dependencies and worsen inequities.

For example, one offending project, known as SCoPEx (Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment), planned to conduct solar geoengineering experiments in the atmosphere over northern Sweden and the ancestral territory of the Saami. In partnering with Sweden’s space agency, the Saami were never consulted. As a result of pushback from the Saami Council and other interests, the experiment was not conducted and is now on hold, but the troubling implications remain.

If the Saami had been consulted, as required under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the project organizers would have learned that such research, in addition to the troubling uncertainties about impacts, violates the Saami worldview about how to live in harmony with the earth’s operating system. They would have been reminded that a privately-funded project with an affiliated business interest and a self-governance structure is not an appropriate model for a technology with such global implications.

These concerns are widespread. In fact, very few scientists, including at least one advisor to the SCoPEx project, believe that solar geoengineering should ever be deployed. Nervous about open-air geoengineering, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity established a moratorium back in 2015, with 196 countries signing on.

Concerns about equity and power dynamics led the Union of Concerned Scientists to list five criteria for atmospheric experiments, including independent, inclusive and transparent governance mechanisms and funding that comes from governments that “support mitigation and adaptation as first-line solutions to climate change.” Research funded by private individuals would violate these criteria, as would self-governance. SCoPEx would never have happened.

Climate change itself is a result of massive solar geoengineering. With a rapid and concentrated release of greenhouse gas pollution we’ve tinkered with our atmosphere to such a degree that we face catastrophic impacts of a changing climate. We have the technology and capacity to reverse that damage and clear a path for civilization to live without the ominous threat of planetary-scale disaster. That work must begin in earnest right away. Investing instead in a complicated and extremely risky Band-Aid — one developed in wealthy countries with a vested interest in the economic status quo — trades one ominous planetary threat for another, in a most injust way. Conducting research to support such an eventuality clears a pathway for an approach that is a dangerous distraction from an imperative social obligation to stop investing in yesterday’s fossil fuel energy sources.

Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Prior to joining UCS and the Belfer Center, Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since resigning from public service in 2017, he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @jclementmaine.