Is solar geoengineering inevitable or can we still fix the climate without it

(ORDO NEWS) — Few concepts have moved from science fiction to science news as quickly as solar geoengineering (aka solar radiation management, or SRM). The reason is terribly simple.

On the one hand, humanity does not seem to be able to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere.

On the other hand, the control of incoming radiation from the Sun seems feasible and fast. It also promises to be orders of magnitude cheaper than reducing emissions or capturing carbon directly from the atmosphere.

In fact, the price of SRM is estimated to be low enough that one country – or even a super-rich person – could launch a climate intervention that will drag us all into a massive global experiment.

Some experts argue that this alone should spur greater investment in understanding the broader impact and potential unintended consequences of SRM.

Others fear that SRM could become our Plan A for tackling climate change, bypassing much less controversial emission reductions and carbon mitigation.

In their view, SRM embodies exactly the same careless, technological hubris that got us to where we are today, with the added downside of a commitment to costly, risky activities for potentially centuries to come.

Reasons for additional research

1. The scientific evidence is still in limbo. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 dropped the global mean air temperature by as much as 0.5C the following year, so the scientific basis seems sound.

However, much more research is needed to quantify the positive and negative effects of deliberately releasing huge amounts of sulfate or chalky aerosols into the atmosphere.

2. Balancing accounts. Highly developed countries are historically responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions from fossil fuel use. The SRM study gives polluters the opportunity – perhaps even the obligation – to correct climate injustice by funding research around the world focused on local issues and impacts.

3. We are already running an extensive global climate experiment. Worrying about interference with the weather may seem redundant when we are already altering the chemistry of the Earth‘s air and water systems almost completely out of control by burning fossil fuels.

From this perspective, understanding how to mitigate the worst effects of climate change should be encouraged, not discouraged.

Too slippery slope

1. Unpredictability and uncontrollability. In January, a group of 60 scientists called for a moratorium on SRM technologies, including no outdoor experimentation, no government funding, no patents, no support from international institutions, and of course no deployment.

They are concerned that the impact of SRM is difficult to predict and cannot be fairly and effectively managed within the current international political system.

2. Beware of quick fixes. If you think something is keeping you safe, you are more likely to take risks. This “moral hazard” has been proven time and time again – not least in the case of road deaths, which continue to rise despite cars being physically safer than ever.

Research from the UK shows that implementing SRM will keep some people from lowering their personal carbon footprint. Some countries (yes, I’m looking at you America) may adopt SRM as a technological patch to perpetuate a wasteful energy society.

3. Long-term commitment is not humanity’s forte. Aerosols in the atmosphere remain effective at reflecting incoming sunlight for only a few months.

Therefore, once you start doing SRM, you must maintain it indefinitely or risk a potentially catastrophic shock where temperatures can rise dramatically in a very short period. Looking at our experience with nuclear waste management – an equally long-term undertaking – provides a sobering perspective.

What to watch out for

1. Weather. Increasingly frequent catastrophic heatwaves, floods and other extreme weather events could boost demand for solutions that promise results in just a few seasons, not decades.

2. Observers. Degrees is a British non-profit organization funded by scientists and environmentalists. It seeks to fund large-scale SRM modeling efforts, including those from the Global South, but remains firmly neutral on whether these technologies should be implemented.

How the positions of such organizations develop in the coming years may show whether SRM will become part of the main effort to reduce carbon emissions.

3. Financing. Are the $100-$200 million that the National Academies of Sciences recommended for SRM research materializing?

If the funding faucet is opened, some proposed SRM methods do appear to be less dangerous than others, including a project to brighten clouds by spraying sea water to make the clouds more reflective.

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