Geoengineering the climate may be possible, but who decides?

Alex Hanafi

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will soon release an important report on the impacts of climate change around the world, including potential responses to adapt to the significant risks presented by a rapidly changing climate.

According to the IPCC, tucked into that report will be a small section addressing the potential impacts of climate engineering (“geoengineering”) technologies. When the IPCC released their last report on the science of climate change, it also included a brief mention of the science of geoengineering, in the last paragraph of the IPCC’s 36-page “Summary for Policymakers.”

What is geoengineering?

As communities and policymakers around the world face the risks presented by a rapidly changing climate, interest in the topic of geoengineering is growing.

Geoengineering refers to a range of techniques for reducing global warming through intervention in the planet’s climate system, by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide removal, or CDR) or by reflecting away a small percentage of inbound sunlight (solar radiation management, or SRM).

Some of these ideas have been proposed by scientists concerned about the lack of political progress in curbing the continued growth in global carbon emissions, and who are looking for other possibilities for addressing climate change if we can’t get emissions under control soon.

With the risks and impacts of rising temperatures already being felt, the fact that solar radiation management would likely be cheap to deploy and fast-acting means that it has attracted particular attention as one possible short-term response to climate change.

The world’s governments tasked the IPCC with investigating these emerging technologies, and three things are clear from the IPCC’s brief analysis:

  1. Carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management might have benefits for the climate system, but they also carry risks, and at this stage it is unknown what the balance of benefits and risks may be. 
  2. The overall effects of solar radiation management for regional and global weather patterns are likely to be uncertain, unpredictable, and broadly distributed across countries. As with climate change itself, there would most likely be winners and losers if solar radiation management technologies were to be used.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, solar radiation management does not provide an alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, since it does not address the rising emissions that are the root cause of ocean acidification and other non-temperature related climate change impacts.

This last point is particularly important. The most that could be expected from solar radiation management would be to serve as a temporary tool to manage some temperature-related climate risks.

The way forward

No one can predict how solar radiation management research will develop or whether these strategies for managing the short-term implications of climate risk will be helpful or harmful, but early cooperation and transnational, interdisciplinary dialogue on geoengineering research governance will help the global community make informed decisions.

Recognizing these needs, The Royal Society, Environmental Defense Fund, and The World Academy of Sciences launched in 2010 the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) an international NGO-driven initiative to explore how solar radiation management research could be governed. SRMGI is neither for nor against solar radiation management. Instead, it aims to foster inclusive, interdisciplinary, and international discussion on solar radiation management research and governance.

SRMGI’s activities are founded on a simple idea: That early and sustained dialogue among diverse stakeholders around the world, informed by the best available science, will increase the chances of solar radiation management research being handled responsibly, equitably, and cooperatively.

But it’s worth remembering that the IPCC devoted only one paragraph of its last 36-page summary report to geoengineering. So while discussion about geoengineering technologies and governance is necessary, the key message from the IPCC must not be lost: It’s time to recognize that the billions of tons of carbon pollution we put in our atmosphere every year are causing dangerous changes to our climate, and we need to work together to find the best ways to reduce that pollution.

This post is adapted from an earlier entry on our Climate Talks blog.

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