As carbon emissions remain prominent across the globe, a group of entrepreneurs and researchers at Harvard University backed by venture capital are planning to expand their research on geoengineering through Solar Radiation Management (SRM). SRM techniques aim to block sunlight from entering the atmosphere, or reflect solar radiation back into space, thus – according to speculative models – creating a cooling effect on the planet. However, SRM potentially opens the door to negative impacts, such as disruption of the life-sustaining hydrological cycle like the Monsoon in Asia. In the past, planned real-world experiments have been cancelled after a public outcry, but this new initiative claims to be different.
The research, also known as a stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment (SCoPEx) is the first formally announced outdoor geoengineering experiment, and plans to spray water, sulphates, and chalk into the upper reaches of the atmosphere over the southwest United States in order to test their effectiveness in blocking sunlight. Though the experiment itself may not be harmful, it could build momentum for large scale SRM experiments and eventual deployment and to entrench the technology as a “viable” solution to climate change in the public’s mind.
ECO recalls that in addition to ethical concerns about manipulating the Earth’s thermostat, SRM does not reduce GHG emissions, air pollution, or marine acidification; and it could undermine sustainable development goals. Furthermore, if SRM deployment were to begin on a significant scale it would be hard to stop, since its postulated effects of cooling are not permanent and it could trigger resurgent global warming if greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise or remain at historically high levels.
Though the scientists involved are not climate sceptics, they are, at best, naive and play into the hands of a fossil fuel industry that attempts to sabotage all strong decarbonisation efforts. It is no surprise that the Trump-party dominated US Congress held an Energy and Environment Committee meeting on geoengineering earlier this week, where members supported geoengineering research and were willing to provide consistent funding for it as a tool to address climate change impacts, instead of adopting politically-unpalatable (to them) mitigation measures.
Among other options, transparent, inclusive, and multilateral governance regimes under the UN could be established to consider whether experiments like these should proceed. If SCoPEx moves forward with its proposed tests in 2018, it could bring full-scale SRM deployment closer. Unpredictable ecological impacts of modifying weather patterns on a mass scale are a grave concern; even more so the risk that SRM is examined for military use, and the diversion of funding away from real solutions to the climate crisis.