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Climate Change

US Government Plans 5-Year Geoengineering Study

The Biden administration will implement a law passed by Congress to study geoengineering as a way of slowing global heating.

The US Congress has mandated an inquiry into techniques that could theoretically cool the Earth to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Such techniques include injecting aerosols high in the atmosphere to reflect some of the energy of the sun back into space or seeding clouds at lower altitudes with particles that would make them more reflective. All these techniques taken together are part of a general category known as geoengineering.

In accordance with the requirements created by Congress, the Biden administration is moving forward with a 5-year study of geoengineering techniques and has issued a call for input. The study will include a “scientific assessment of solar and other rapid climate interventions in the context of near-term climate risks and hazards. 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.”

The problem is, despite all the millions of words spoken and written about the existential threat of an overheating planet, very little has been done to actually reduce average global temperatures. Governments still provide massive subsidies — both direct and indirect — to the fossil fuel industry. No one has yet figured out a way to link the harm done to the environment by carbon and methane emissions to actual financial consequences. The new study is an admission that nothing is working, so we had better have a Plan B, even if that plan is fraught with potential pitfalls and unknown dangers.

Some people take comfort in saying we will find a way to “science our way” out of the climate emergency. At the last possible moment, some new technology will magically appear that will save us all from our self-destructive behavior. That’s a convenient and comfortable myth, but the truth is that if we don’t stop filling the air with carbon dioxide and methane, the vast majority of humans will die off along with tens of thousands of other species who have adapted to living within a narrow range of temperatures. Oh, sure, some species with adapt to the new environmental norms, but humans won’t be part of whatever is next.

The Promise & Perils Of Geoengineering


Image credit: National Academy of Sciences

Chris Field is a scientist who chaired a National Academies of Sciences panel last year that recommended at least $100 million should be be spent to research geoengineering. He tells The Guardian, “Until recently, I thought it was too risky, but slow progress on cutting emissions has increased motivation to understand techniques at the margins like solar geoengineering. I don’t think we should deploy it yet and there are still a ton of concerns, but we need to better understand it. Climate change is causing widespread impacts; it’s costing lives and wrecking economies. We are in a tough position. We are running out of time, so it’s important we know more.”

Previous attempts at running experiments for what is known as solar radiation management (SRM) have faced strong opposition. Last year, an exploratory flight in Sweden of a high altitude SRM balloon, led by Harvard University researchers, was halted after objections by environmentalists and Indigenous leaders.

Edward Parson, an expert in environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells The Guardian the risks in researching solar geoengineering have been overblown and that the US “is probably the bold leader on this. It would be a big step forward if we have a research program. In my opinion, the probability that a nation makes a serious effort on solar geoengineering over the next 30 years is about 90%. As impacts get much worse and if mitigation doesn’t massively increase, I judge it quite likely that some major nation considers its citizens are suffering climate harms that are intolerable.”

That prospect horrifies opponents of solar geoengineering. An open letter signed by more than 380 scientists demands a global non-use agreement for SRM. “We call for immediate political action from governments, the United Nations, and other actors to prevent the normalization of solar geoengineering as a climate policy option. Governments and the United Nations must assert effective political control and restrict the development of solar geoengineering technologies at planetary scale. Specifically, we call for an International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering.” The scientists foresee an unknown set of ramifications that will have varying consequences in different parts of the world and could scramble “weather patterns, agriculture and the provision of basic needs of food and water.”

Frank Biermann, an expert in global governance at Utrecht University, said he is also disturbed that solar geoengineering will create a sort of moral hazard where governments ease off efforts to cut emissions and fossil fuel companies use it as cover to continue business as usual. Planet-heating emissions are expected to hit a record high this year, even though they must be cut in half this decade if the world is to avoid dangerous levels of global heating.

“I would say the majority of scientists believe this is a crazy idea for a variety of reasons,” says Biermann, who thinks the US is an outlier because of its own large per-capita emissions and inconsistent adherence to global agreements. “Soon, everyone who is dependent on coal, oil and gas will jump on the solar engineering bandwagon and say, ‘we can continue for 40 years with fossil fuels’ now. This debate threatens to derail current climate policies. It’s a huge risk. The only way to find out whether this works is to do it to the whole planet for several years.”

There are several types of proposed geoengineering, such as pumping a mist of salt water into clouds to make them more reflective of sunlight, or placing ice particles into high altitude clouds to stop them trapping so much of the heat that bounces off Earth.

The most frequently suggestion is  firing a reflective substance such as sulfur or chalk dust from nozzles into the stratosphere, where the particles would then circulate around the world and start deflecting the sun’s rays. David Keith, professor of applied physics and of public policy at Harvard, estimates that around 2 million tons of sulfur a year, injected via a fleet of about 100 high altitude aircraft, would cool the planet by around 1º C — roughly equal to the amount the average temperature of the Earth has risen since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

All of this would cost several billion dollars a year according to an estimate, and provide a relatively quick drop in temperatures. Keith argues it is more compelling than various carbon capture technologies that can take a long time and involve complex, expensive infrastructure. “Pretending that climate change can be solved with emissions cuts alone is a dangerous fantasy,” he has said.

The basic physics of doing this is well understood, Edward Parson says. It’s a lot like the huge eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, an event that expelled nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere and caused global temperatures to drop temporarily by about 0.5 C.

“Most people didn’t notice that and there have been studies since that give us confidence it can be done,” said Parson. “We don’t know how it should be done, yet, and the environmental aspects and the governance remain concerns. It would be reckless to just start deploying this now but we have lost so many easy paths to limit the harms of climate change that we only face worse options.”

Termination Shock

There isn’t any international governance around solar geoengineering at the present time. Critics fear that unilateral action to alter the climate could spark conflict if one part of the world benefits while another suffers droughts, floods, or famines as a result. Also, the addition of aerosols would have to be continuous to maintain the cooling. Any disruption, either intentional or otherwise, would cause a sort of “termination shock,” where bottled up warming would be unleashed in a disastrously rapid jolt.

“Termination shock terrifies me,” said Lili Fuhr, a climate and energy expert at the Center for International Environmental Law. “This is just a gigantic gamble with the systems that sustain life on Earth. It could be weaponized, it could be misused – imagine if, say, India and Pakistan disagreed over one of them doing this. We need to do more than just emissions cuts and I wish we had a magical fix to this, but this doesn’t turn bad ideas into good ones,” Fuhr adds.

Just imagine if a process of geoengineering is underway and a change in national leadership brings a megalomaniac to power who decides to end the process. The problem with government is we assume our leaders are rational, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

The debate over how much we should meddle with the climate is likely to intensify as the fallout from global heating worsens. For now, opponents won’t back down. To Biermann, solar geoengineering should be considered by governments as being akin to landmines or biological weapons and blacklisted internationally. “This is just another one on this list,” he said. “People talk about the freedom of research, but you don’t have the freedom to sit in your back yard and develop a chemical bomb.”

The Takeaway

The truth is, we aren’t going to “science our way” out the looming carbon crisis. We will continue doing what we have always done until we pass the point of no return, because that’s what humans do. Perhaps the next species to dominate life on our little blue lifeboat at the far edge of a minor galaxy will be smart enough not to destroy the only home they will ever know. Too bad we won’t be around to learn from them.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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