Climate change Technology and the Solar Radiation debate
As the new IPCC report reinvigorates public concern about climate change, technological solutions should be considered in stride. Solar Radiation Management is on the table for future debate.
By DeLaine Mayer
The planet has already warmed 1°C over pre-industrial levels. As a result, by 2030, intense storms, extreme drought, and destructive wildfires will be the new normal, contributing to food shortages, mass migration, and social instability. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) new report highlights how “business as usual” carbon emissions will lead to catastrophic climatic externalities resulting from a 1.5°C temperature increase over pre-industrial levels. Amidst the existential alarmism now ringing out throughout the media, technological interventions are being researched and deployed to mitigate warming and preserve the ecological systems the human species relies on.
These ecological systems, sometimes referred to as planetary boundaries, identify “safe operating limits for human activity.” These boundaries are interlinked; a problem in one can intensify a problem in another, called positive feedback. Global warming is not just warmer air and water, it’s also changes to global planetary processes. Changing those processes means changing the systems humans rely on: fishing, farming, and energy production, as well as the social, economic, and cultural systems built around those. Technological advances in climate and weather modification are being increasingly called upon as scientific solutions to the anthropogenic problems of pollution, scarcity, and intensifying climatic events.
IPCC authors point out that large-scale Solar Radiation Management (SRM) “could potentially be used to supplement mitigation in overshoot scenarios to keep the global mean temperature below 1.5°C and temporarily reduce the severity of near-term impacts.” What does this mean? If the world misses the 1.5°C target and average global temperatures continue to rise (the overshoot scenario), carbon reduction technologies will need to be deployed at large scale to avoid reaching a catastrophic 3°C warming by the end of the century.
In 2017, the U.S. launched the world’s biggest solar geoengineering study, kicking off research that is both lauded and controversial, depending on which industry you ask. While the IPCC report does not use the term “geo-engineering” due to linguistic inconsistencies in SRM and carbon dioxide removal (CDR) literature, it does refer to Solar Radiation Management as a potential supplement to other mitigation strategies in overshoot scenarios.
The sun produces energy that arrives at our planet. About 30 percent of that energy is reflected back into space, bouncing off clouds and ice. The remaining 70 percent, including carbon dioxide and methane, is absorbed and trapped in the planet’s atmosphere. This trapped gas is greenhouse gas, which contributes to the earth’s warming. The idea behind SRM is that if more of the sun’s energy bounces away, rather than being trapped in the atmosphere, the planet will reduce its greenhouse gas absorption, which will help in the fight against global warming in the coming century. SRM proponents want to mimic volcanic eruptions (which naturally do the aforementioned) by directing high-flying planes to inject sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere. SO2, they argue, will shield the planet from the sun’s energy, so less gas is absorbed into the atmosphere.
There are a number of challenges and criticisms of SRM. SRM allows governments to postpone more immediate climate solutions under the guise that SRM will clean up a bigger mess later. SO2 injection would disrupt weather, rain, and ice, which would impact agricultural and human systems. Humans may be exposed to more UV light as a result of SRM deployment. Additionally, how these technologies are researched and deployed has heavy geopolitical implications because climate change has disproportionate impacts globally. Developing countries bear more of the burden of the impacts of climate change, with some of the most visible and drastic impacts being the complete loss of island nations to sea level rise. Further, the heaviest carbon emitters in the world typically have greater geopolitical power and will be better able to respond to climate instability than poorer developing countries that emit less. Developing countries will continue to have a limited voice in the debate about deployment of globally impactful technologies. Power structures co-evolve with technological development, known as lock-in. Power is replicated in the practice of technology; technological change mirrors the interests and political pressures of those with higher socioeconomic status, leaving those with a lower socioeconomic status behind. Lastly, the effects of SRM deployment are not localized, and the absence of regional or international regulatory structures poses challenges to the globalized nature of SRM technologies.
Some view geoengineering as a bridge between current behaviors and policies and future deployment of sustainable action, in effect, buying time. Regional or international institutions are necessary for states engaging with this technology, to ensure positive applications and mitigated risk. As an emerging policy area, questions of oversight of both research and implementation remain on the table.
All technologies carry risk alongside opportunity. Whether SRM is part of future greenhouse gas reduction strategies, or a stepping-stone to sustainable policy while national governments get their standards and priorities in order, opening communicative channels for regional dialogue on climate change, its impacts, and national responses can contribute to more robust, holistic policy agendas that incorporate environmental, social, and economic welfare across borders.