Thu, Mar 28, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Shedding light on the geoengineering issue

By ignoring solar geoengineering as tool to control climate change, leaders could increase the risk of its misuse

By David Keith

Negotiations on geoengineering technologies ended in deadlock earlier this month at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, when a Swiss-backed proposal to commission an expert UN panel on the subject was withdrawn amid disagreements over language. This is a shame, because the world needs open debate about novel ways to reduce climate risks.

Specifics aside, the impasse stemmed from a dispute within the environmental community about growing scientific interest in solar geoengineering — the possibility of deliberately reflecting a small amount of sunlight back into space to help combat climate change.

Some environmental and civil-society groups, convinced that solar geoengineering would be harmful or misused, oppose further research, policy analysis and debate about the issue. Others, including large environmental groups, support cautious research.

By reflecting sunlight away from the Earth — perhaps by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere — solar geoengineering could partly offset the energy imbalance caused by accumulating greenhouse gases.

Research using most major climate models suggests that solar geoengineering might reduce important climate risks, such as changes in water availability, extreme precipitation, sea level and temperature.

However, any version of this technology carries risks of its own, including air pollution, damage to the ozone layer and unanticipated climate changes.

Research on solar geoengineering is highly controversial. This has limited research funding to a few tiny programs around the world, although a larger number of climate scientists are beginning to work on this topic using existing funds for climate research.

Why the controversy? Many fear, with good reason, that fossil-fuel interests would exploit solar geoengineering to oppose emissions cuts, but most researchers are not driven by such interests. The vast majority of those researching solar geoengineering or advocating for its inclusion in climate-policy debates also support much stronger action to reduce emissions.

Yet it is very likely that Big Fossil — from multinational energy companies to coal-dependent regions — would eventually use discussion of geoengineering to fight emissions restrictions.

However, that risk is not a sufficient reason to abandon or suppress research on solar geoengineering.

Environmentalists have spent decades fighting Big Fossil’s opposition to climate protection, and although progress to date has been insufficient, there have been some successes. The world now spends more than US$300 billion per year on low-carbon energy and young people are bringing new political energy to the fight for a safer climate.

Open discussion of solar geoengineering would not weaken the commitment of environmental advocates, because they know emissions must be cut to zero to achieve a stable climate. At worst, such a debate could make some in the broad, disengaged middle of the climate battle less interested in near-term emissions cuts.

Yet even this is not certain; there is empirical evidence that public awareness of geoengineering increases interest in cutting emissions.

It is sensible to focus on cutting emissions and reasonable to worry that discussing solar geoengineering could distract from that fight, but it is wrong to indulge a monomania whereby emissions cuts become the sole objective of climate policy.

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