Solar Geoengineering within the News — Again and Again
An update on the intense and the silly
Solar geoengineering has been outstanding within the news recently. It looks just like the long-predicted spike of attention to those potential climate responses may finally be starting – with many attendant opportunities for controversy and confusion.
For background on solar geoengineering, why it’s vital to research, and what the debates over it are, take a look at various prior LP posting from Emmett Institute researchers here, here, here, here, here, and here.
The present spike of stories coverage spans a wide selection from the intense to the silly. Highlights include:
- A tiny startup firm, “Make Sunsets,” launched a few weather balloons with a number of grams of SO2 in late 2022 from a personal property in Baja California, Mexico. After publicity of their announcement provoked a statement of disavowal from the Government of Mexico, they subsequently relocated to Reno, Nevada.
- An analogous motion – a few small, off-the-shelf weather balloons carrying a number of hundred grams of SO2 to the stratosphere – was recently disclosed to have taken place in England in September 2022, with higher documentation and flight engineering than the Make Sunsets flights. A report from that balloon flight and a previous failed one is now under review at a scientific journal.
- Just a few firms are proposing to spray “iron salt aerosols” – ferric chloride, FeCl3, or related compounds containing iron and chlorine – from ships. Proponents claim the method will replicate phytoplankton fertilization by iron-rich dust blown into the oceans during ice ages, and that it is going to help limit climate change through several mechanisms – most prominently by oxidizing atmospheric methane.
- The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began a latest phase of a research program in February, including stratospheric flights with old bombers converted to research aircraft carrying multiple instruments to do baseline observations of present stratospheric conditions. This latest phase continues a small (about $10M/12 months) research program authorized by Congress since 2002, and follows a previous phase of modeling and balloon observations.
Several additional announcements related to solar geoengineering research are expected soon. In response to a mandate within the 2022 Appropriations Bill, a working group convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been working for a 12 months to plan a five-year US federal research program. The American Geophysical Union is preparing a statement on ethics of geoengineering research. The soon expected Synthesis Report from the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Cycle, eagerly anticipated on March 20, might move the ball on IPCC’s thus-far limited willingness to have interaction debates over solar geoengineering.
Understanding these recent events and their significance requires some context. Because the Legal Planet stories linked above summarize, solar geoengineering (SG) presents a high-stakes mixture of promised reduction in near-term climate risks not achievable through other responses alone, together with latest risks and uncertainties and major latest challenges to international governance.
This uncertain, high-stakes state of affairs may appear to support a stance of precaution and investigation: Don’t depend on SG working and being acceptable, don’t slacken efforts on other essential climate responses, and on all accounts don’t attempt to do SG. But do research to try to grasp whether and the way it would work, with what unwanted effects, and take a look at to work out the right way to govern it effectively, safely, and justly. While it could come as a surprise to those latest to the difficulty, this seemingly precautionary stance has met strong resistance. Debate has been particularly sharp over proposed small field-research experiments – experiments that might inject small amounts of materials into the atmosphere to watch local chemical, radiative, and climate responses.
Opponents of SG research have advanced a wide selection of claims, of which two are credible and serious. The primary is that some type of socio-technical lock-in mechanism will cause research to expand into deployment, even when a good reading of the evidence would judge this harmful or inadvisable. The second builds on long-standing concerns that over-reliance on SG might weaken resolve for needed emissions cuts, to suggest that even researching or discussing SG might trigger such over-reliance and weakening of other essential efforts.
Probably the most outstanding recent statement against SG research appeared in an open letter calling for a “non-use agreement” (NUA) and a supporting paper published in WIRES Climate Change, each in January, 2022. I regard each these documents as dangerously wrong-headed and misleading, but will save my detailed criticisms for one more post, as a number of co-authors and I even have a paper under review that responds to their arguments intimately. For purposes of this post, there are two highlights: that the NUA proposal and supporting paper purport to focus on only “use” of SG and never block research, when their actual proposals would in actual fact block all or virtually all research; and that, like all other recent anti-SG-research arguments, they treat potential risks and harms related to SG in isolation, as a right of the linked risks of climate change or the prospect of rapid, single-minded, possibly coercive pursuit of other responses that SG might help to alleviate. (For a more sympathetic reading of the NUA proposal and supporting paper, see the recent LP post by Emmett Geoengineering Governance Fellow Duncan McLaren.)
Over the past few weeks, three other outstanding statements have appeared, which propose more responsible paths forward on the potential role of SG and SG research in climate response – two open letters by international groups of climate scientists here and here, and one report by a world expert panel established by the UN Environment Programme. The three statements differ in lots of details, but are consistent in a set of core messages:
- All of them stress the first and essential role of deep emissions cuts and adaptation in climate response, while also recognizing the likelihood that these may, even with greatly increased efforts, be insufficient to limit climate risks.
- All of them discover the high-stakes mixture of promise, risk, governance challenges, and uncertainties that SG presents.
- All of them forcefully reject any near-term proposal to deploy SG, and affirm the necessity to avoid unwarranted reliance on SG being available, effective, and acceptable, lest it undermine essential, overdue efforts on other responses.
- And so they all stress the necessity to expand broadly participatory research on SG methods, effects and risks, and efforts to develop effective and just global governance.
Probably the most significant differences between these statements concern the right way to conduct the beneficial expansion of research – specifically, what additional governance, if any, is required specifically for research related to SG, beyond normal governance processes for scientific research. This can also be the realm of most serious uncertainty and disagreement amongst those energetic in the controversy – even setting aside disingenuous demands for research governance processes so aspirational and burdensome that they’re such as a ban on research.
Although an incredible deal more work is required to ascertain a path forward on SG research, a number of points are well established:
- Research – on SG, and typically, shouldn’t be ungoverned, but is subject to a wide selection of governance requirements via peer review and other scientific processes, funder requirements, access to publication outlets and skilled fora, plus existing environmental, health, safety, employment, financial, and other authoritative regulations. As well as, research is subjected to specific additional regulations when there are concerns that research might do direct harm (e.g., human subjects research, treatment of research animals) or there are obvious, direct pathways to subsequent harm (certain forms of weapons and dual-use technologies).
- Claims that SG research needs and lacks governance normally seek advice from governance based on subject-matter. It’s correct that research is usually not governed on this basis, including based on concerns about what errors or wrongs people might do with the knowledge or capability generated by the research – apart from the weapons cases noted above. There are perennial calls for research governance based on such indirect concerns, but they’re rarely adopted.
- Within the case of SG-related research, some controls based on widespread concerns about indirect effects are widely agreed and is perhaps relatively uncontroversial to enact, at the least as soft-law governance. These include, for instance, expectations for enhanced transparency and disclosure, including objectives, participants, and sources of funding and other support; promotion of international collaboration with special deal with strengthening Global South participation; and breakpoints or off-ramps for scale or intensity of energetic perturbation experiments. The one style of proposed governance requirement that’s more likely to be more difficult and contentious is expounded to public consultation requirements, particularly in the event that they carry a point of granting authoritative external control over what research questions are pursued using what methods.
Yet little or no progress toward these seemingly reasonable goals has been achieved. Relative to evident value and want, research, researchers, and resources to support research are woefully short. In my view, it is obvious that that is the results of the sustained and intense opposition mobilized against SG research inside the small community attending to the difficulty, from some NGOs and academics. It’s entirely reasonable for climate researchers who’ve observed the brazen misrepresentations, vilification, and death threats that the Harvard group has received in response to their proposals to do the Scopex experiment – which, it bears reminding, the group has repeatedly decided to not take forward – to choose they don’t need that trouble and decide to work on other questions. The prohibitionist camp also, in my opinion, bears responsibility for the silly stunts and dangerously premature attempts to commercialize SRM that we at the moment are seeing. When funders and researchers who need to act responsibly and care about their reputations are scared away however the demand or need is great, what happens? Like other zealous prohibitionists before them, the prohibitionists are creating the conditions for emergence of the bootlegging industry, the damaging back-alley abortionists.
We’re thus in a dangerous place – relative to understanding the potential role and limits of SRM, and thus more broadly, relative to the totality of accessible responses to limit climate change. Is there a way out? We will actually expect a continuation of silly theatrical stunts and deceptive premature attempts to commercialize SRM. Attempting to stamp these out is a idiot’s errand. They’re presently legal, they’re dirt-cheap, they’re doing no direct environmental harm, they usually are so much like activities done by lots of of science clubs and high-school classes, that the prospect of legal prohibition seems ludicrous. For me, the clearest path toward credible research in support of effective climate risk management runs through publicly funded research programs in democratic jurisdictions with strong scientific and transparency norms, with rapid international expansion prioritizing countries of the Global South. There’s also need for a highly credible global assessment process for current knowledge and research priorities on SRM. Research programs can include additional, issue-specific governance processes as long as the burden is proscribed, falling far wanting being such as prohibition. We’re ranging from a nasty place, where research conduct and support by actors with the best scientific credibility and commitment to public profit has been selectively deterred, but I feel there may be a way back. It’s even possible that response to the current collection of silly stuff will help start to maneuver things in that positive direction.