The U.S. Is One Step Closer to Establishing a Research Program to Block the Sun

The U.S. Is One Step Closer to Establishing a Research Program to Block the Sun
A cargo plane on its final approach into Long Beach Airport passes in front a hazy sun caused by smoke from the nearby Silverado Fire on Oct. 26, 2020. (Photo: Michael Heiman, Getty Images)

There are some signs the world may be finally gearing up to tackle the root cause of the climate crisis by reducing carbon emissions. But on Wednesday, a group of scientists detailed how to develop an insurance plan if the world fails to do so.

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences released a monster report on Thursday outlining how the U.S. could create a plan to block the sun should the world not reduce carbon emissions fast enough or if global warming becomes a threat to human existence. The findings from the nation’s top science institute indicate that the U.S. could be edging toward starting research into a topic that just a few years ago was all but taboo.

“With the inclusion of the National Academies report in this growing field, it’s clear that solar geoengineering can no longer be considered on the fringes of climate policy or a futuristic proposal that we can worry about down the road,” Kevin Surprise, a lecturer at Mt. Holyoke who didn’t work on the report, said in a call with reporters.

The new report was, it says, commissioned “to provide recommendations for how to establish a research program” that sets an agenda for science, governance, international cooperation, and engaging the public. It chronicles three of the most common ideas to hack the sky, which includes injecting tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere, brighten marine clouds also using tiny particles, and thinning cirrus clouds.

Research has shown all three options could potentially cool the Earth by blocking incoming sunlight or, in the case of cirrus thinning, allowing more heat to escape the planet’s surface. Yet all three come with risks that could disrupt the climate in other ways, and none would address the issues of ocean acidification or local pollution from burning fossil fuels and other industrial activities.

Nevertheless, they could all be a vital brake on runaway climate change. And with limited time to address the crisis, there’s an urgency to understand what would happen if we pull the e-brake. The report calls for a limited research program of $US100 ($132) million to $US200 ($264) million spread out over five years with stringent guardrails in terms of transparency and objectives.

Putting public money into the effort rather than the hodgepodge of private funding that has so far fuelled a good portion of the research, including a Bill Gates-backed initiative at Harvard that wants to do a small-scale test this summer in the wild, could help provide some accountability. So, too, could creating a governance structure that tracks who exactly is doing what. The report calls out a number of research initiatives in the health sector around particularly thorny issues that could provide a vision for how to approach hacking the planet. Among them are a World Health Organisation registry for human genome editing, which was announced in late 2018. The registry hasn’t prevented experiments from moving forward, including the prospect of genetically altered babies. But it does provide at least some assurance of transparency in a rapidly developing field.

For geoengineering, that would be crucial given the prospect of altering the global climate system in radical ways that could harm some communities and industries while benefitting others. It could, for example, give countries reliant on fossil fuels for their economy carte blanche to keep profiting off oil and gas (though to mitigate that, the report argues that funds for research could be distributed to scientists working in countries that are actively reducing their emissions). But moving forward with a plan to block incoming sunlight could alter rainfall patterns and cause monsoon rains that millions of farmers in India rely on to dry up. The report calls for engaging a number of audiences, including those who could potentially be adversely impacted.

While the U.S. certainly has an obligation to fund research into how to cool down the planet given its role as the largest historical carbon emitter, its priorities are different than those of, say, small island nations. Letting it set the terms of engagement with geoengineering rather than countries that have been oft-ignored could exacerbate inequalities further.

“Are you designing your research to inform the global society of the widest possible set of risk and different extent to which different types of risks may be unfolding by geoengineering program?” said Prakash Kashwan, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut.

The report notes the frameworks that exist to regulate geoengineering both in the U.S. and internationally are lacking. A registry along with working groups and identifying so-called “exit ramps” should research pose risks to the climate, international security, or other facets of society could help address some of the gaps. But the process of determining what constitutes “safe” and whether or not a program is delaying what should be the world’s number one goal of reducing emissions are fraught questions and point to the need for constant oversight.

This isn’t the first National Academies geoengineering rodeo. The group put out a report in 2015 on the topic, but a lot has changed since then. A string of record-hot years, ever-rising carbon dioxide levels, and a slew of new studies on how blocking the sun could affect the planet have come out. Justice for traditionally ignored communities has also come to the forefront of discussions around addressing climate change. With the advent of the geoengineering era quite possible upon us, those issues will become even more important to address.