Energy & Environmental Policy LBJ School Technology Policy

Spraying the Skies: an Untested Stopgap for Climate Change

Late in July, an off-the-record gathering of experts and academics converged on the Grand Summit Hotel in Newry, Maine to talk climate change. The handpicked coterie of conference-goers did not discuss carbon emissions or unveil next-generation renewable energy tech. Instead, the topic at hand was climate engineering: a sci-fi-sounding, catch-all term that refers to deliberate manipulation of the climate system.

Thus far in 2017, a carbon juggernaut walked out of the Paris deal, other countries are struggling to meet their reduction pledges, temperatures continue to climb, and the consequences are mounting. Despite sweeping rhetoric, lofty goals, and multilateral treaties, the world is backsliding in its efforts to fight climate change.

This is why climate engineering – as a possible last-ditch measure to buy some time – has gained traction with some climate scientists and experts in recent years. A decade ago it was obscure, taboo, and niche; now, it’s on the radar.

Formally dubbed “Radiation Management Climate Engineering: Technology, Modeling, Efficacy, and Risks,” July’s conference was an important stepping-stone for carefully and ethically taking climate engineering from the idea to experimentation stage.

China has built up a large geoengineering research program. Other research centers have cropped up across the U.S. and around the world. In 2018, Harvard professors David Keith and Frank Keutsch, who co-chaired and presented at the conference, respectively, plan to conduct a climate engineering experiment in Arizona by launching a high-altitude balloon that will mist the stratosphere with reflective particles. The hope is that these particles will reflect heat back into space.

For the most part, “[r]esearchers at this conference talked about how to [conduct experiments] ethically, what that governance should look like, and what sorts of experiments they can do that they’ll get good information out of,” said Dr. Joseph Majkut, Director of Climate Policy at the Niskanen Center and a conference attendee.

Geoengineering schemes run the gamut from the outlandish, zany proposals, such as planet-sized parasols and microbot mirrors in space, to the dull and noncontroversial: using reflective white paint.

Solar Radiation Management (SRM) is a proposal that entails the spraying of aerosols into the upper layers of the atmosphere to produce a cooling effect. The idea is modeled on large volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and Krakatoa in 1883. These events dumped large volumes of ash and aerosols into the atmosphere and resulted in temporary temperature drops.

With “the growing concerns about the effects of climate change” and “the idea that [SRM] could really peel the worst of climate risk and hold off the worst effects of climate change,” it is definitely possible that it could be deployed within a few decades, Majkut believes.

“A sudden shift in the politics of climate change could occur at any time. Solar geoengineering could shift from the fringes to center stage. It’s the kind of solution Donald Trump would be attracted to,” Clive Hamilton, author of Earthmasters: the Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, emailed me.

Hamilton postulated that countries privy to “grand technological interventions,” such as the United States or Russia, would be favorably inclined to geo-engineer, while more green-leaning, proactive blocs of the world (such as the European Union) would prefer mitigation.

SRM could be quick, effective, and inexpensive to the tune of around five billion dollars out-of-pocket per annum total. “Emission reductions, while the costs to the global economy are small, are significant and real, and require considerable political and economic dislocation of industries,” Majkut noted, while adding: “SRM doesn’t have those problems or barriers.” SRM could be administered relatively easily: a small fleet of retrofitted aircraft would conduct high-altitude flights and release a steady stream of tiny particles of sulfate aerosol into the stratosphere.

But the operative words in discussions surrounding SRM are “could” and “might,” because at this point it is completely untested. Scientists agree that before any serious large-scale action, further examination and experimentation are needed.

Dr. Claire Parkinson, a senior climatologist at NASA, told me: “I could foresee the necessity of doing something extreme like [SRM]. I do understand the benefits of studying these possibilities so that if down the road we need it, we will know what the consequences will be.” She noted that many of the potential consequences could be cause for concern.

SRM is no magic bullet, as a raft of side effects and direct effects could come with the territory: it could deplete the ozone layer, alter precipitation patterns, and create global imbalance so as to make regional “winners” and “losers.” Even if the technology had its intended effect, reductions in temperature levels would be artificial. Sea level rise, ocean acidification, acid deposition, and the ecosystem disruption would continue.

There are also concerns that forms of climate engineering could lull us into a sense of false comfort and pose a moral hazard. This type of intervention could be conceptualized as a “band-aid” fix, providing policymakers with the cover to shirk more difficult mitigation measures. In this sense, SRM would be a crutch.

“My biggest concern is our ignorance, whether SRM will work and in what ways it will work. That concerns sits next to concerns that maybe it is not being taken seriously enough,”Majkut concluded. As experimentation is undertaken and further research is conducted, the results could assuage his concerns – or exacerbate them.

Given the persistent problems posed by climate change and the dynamics of our current political landscape, SRM is no longer the technophile’s pipe dream. But it is also an unknown quantity. Regardless, the next time geoengineering researchers congregate to talk shop, the idea that we could be spraying the upper layers of our atmosphere to deflect sunlight to counteract climate change will be less of a theoretical possibility and more of a real option.  

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