A battle over how to protect the planet from overheating is heating up.
Academics are coming out of the woodwork, forming coalitions, issuing declarations. A subdued debate over the merits versus demerits of solar geoengineering (SRM) has been ongoing for years. Now battle lines are forming.
The SRM controversy is coming to a head, in part, because of a small two-person startup company named Make Sunsets launching weather balloons filled with reflective sulfur particles off the coast of Baja, California with the bold idea of testing whether it is realistic to reflect sun radiation back to outer space and thus help prevent overheating of the planet. Interestingly, they expect to profit by selling credits. As such, Make Sunsets has become a bit of a renegade actor serving as an unwelcomed catalyst for academics to come to grips with the issue. But looked at from another angle, it’s a welcomed catalyst for an issue that must be sorted out as soon as possible, regardless of Make Sunsets presence.
After all, the White House has already directed a study of SRM (solar radiation management). On October 13, 2022, the White House announced funding of a five-year research plan: “One of the most controversial plans to fight climate change, utilizing technology to artificially modify the planet’s climate” or in plain English geo-engineering by spraying fine aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away.
The White House Request for Input to a Five-Year Plan for Research on Climate Intervention itemized, as follows: “The report shall include: (1) the definition of goals in relevant areas of scientific research; (2) capabilities required to model, analyze, observe, and monitor atmospheric composition; (3) climate impacts and the Earth’s radiation budget; and (4) the coordination of Federal research and investments to deliver this assessment to manage near-term climate risk and research in climate intervention.”
Obviously, Make Sunsets has jumped the gun and rattled several significant cages, especially in the face of unanswered questions about the risks of artificially tinkering with the climate system. But, then again, is geo-engineering a by-product of fossil fuel CO2 emissions, even if not by design? If yes, it implies that fossil fuel CO2 ‘unintentional geo-engineering’ should be viewed as the direct opposite of SRM. CO2 traps heat. SRM reflects heat. This would mean that fossil fuel-generated CO2 emissions demonstrate what geo-engineering can accomplish, which is an enormous planetary headache, if misdirected.
In 2021, in Sweden, Harvard University’s outdoor Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment was halted on the spot by opposition forces. Their experiment was only aiming to test the behavior of stratospheric aerosols. Harvard’s failed attempt is a prime example of SRM’s steep uphill battle to establish credibility.
Within the past several months an opposition group to all SRM experimentation issued a declaration supported by several hundred well-known, high-level academics, social scientists, and natural scientists: We Call for an International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering.
According to their (Non-Users) proclamation: “There are growing calls in recent years for research on ‘solar geoengineering’, a set of entirely speculative technologies to reduce incoming sunlight on earth in order to limit global warming. Our initiative stands against such emerging initiatives to explore planetary techno-fixes as a climate policy option. Solar geoengineering deployment at planetary scale cannot be fairly and effectively governed in the current system of international institutions. It also poses unacceptable risk if ever implemented as part of future climate policy. A strong political message from governments, the United Nations and civil society is urgently needed.”
The Non-Users claim SRM risks are poorly understood and can never be fully known. It could disrupt basic weather patterns to the detriment of agriculture. Also, it works against commitments for mitigation of CO2 emissions, as ultra-pro-fossil fuel interests deflect critics: “No sweat, SRM can handle it.” But, so sorry fossil fuel hopefuls, that’s not true, not even close. Furthermore, there is no dependable global governance system in place to regulate SRM deployment. In point of fact, Make Sunsets renegade behaviour proves total lack of governance.
Non-Users demand a closed-end agreement: “In sum, an International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering would be timely, feasible, and effective. It would inhibit further normalization and development of a risky and poorly understood set of technologies that seek to intentionally manage incoming sunlight at planetary scale. And it would do so without restricting legitimate climate research. Decarbonization of our economies is feasible if the right steps are taken. Solar geoengineering is not necessary. Neither is it desirable, ethical, or politically governable in the current context.”
Meanwhile, the maybe-go-for-it side is pushing to explore the possibilities of SRM, involving an equally prestigious high-level group led by one of the world’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. According to Hansen: “We have no right to ban the right to search for a solution for the mess we created… The fact that major international climate assessments are ‘always a few decades behind’ when it comes to estimating just how hot it will get makes more research even more urgent.” (Source: 60 Scientists Call for Accelerated Research Into ‘Solar Radiation Management’ That Could Temporarily Mask Global Warming, Inside Climate news, February 27, 2023)
According to this pro-SRM group: “Even with aggressive action to reduce GHG emissions it is increasingly unlikely that climate warming will remain below 1.5-2°C in the near term. This is because reversing current warming trends will require a significant reduction in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, which significantly lag behind reductions in emissions due to their long atmospheric lifetime. Notably, even 1.5-2°C of warming brings with it significant risks to human, ecological, and global economic systems and may be sufficient to cross the threshold of earth system ‘tipping points.”
The pro-group cautiously concludes: “While we fully support research into SRM approaches, this does not mean we support the use of SRM. Uncertainties in how SRM implementation would play out in the climate system are presently too large to support implementation.”
Therefore, the outlook for SRM as an effective weapon to ameliorate global warming is cloudy at best and could be a decade, or more, in the making. According to the Hansen group: “Since decisions on whether or not to implement SRM are likely to be considered in the next one to two decades, a robust international scientific assessment of SRM approaches is needed as rapidly as possible. Notably, much of the fundamental research needed to assess SRM interventions would also address existing knowledge gaps about our atmosphere and climate, such as how particulate pollution is already affecting clouds and how much this effect has been countering the warming from GHG increases – which continues to be the largest source of uncertainty in how humans are presently affecting climate.”
Indeed, there are influential climate scientists on both sides of the SRM debate. According to University of Oxford climate physicist Raymond Pierrehumbert, SRM should never be considered until after reaching net zero carbon emissions: “But we’re not even on a downward trajectory for emissions yet… In a world where you’re continuing to pump out CO2 and then using solar radiation management is a clear death spiral… the idea that there could be effective governance for solar radiation management is just ludicrous… especially with the tech sector driving the push for solar radiation management experiments,” Ibid.
What is known about SRM is that it (1) would not by itself slow the buildup of greenhouse gases and (2) would not stop ocean acidification, two crucial negatives that must be dealt with in an orderly manner. It would, however, temporarily mask the warming but once SRM activity stops, there will likely be a significant warming rebound, thereby exacerbating global warming. In other words, like manufacturing a product on a conveyor belt, it must be continually fed material, or once aerosols halt, it will bring on rapid heating. Then, what?
There are no easy answers.
How about mirrors? See: MEER– “Cooling the planet with surface reflectors.”
Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at [email protected].