Solar Geoengineering: Our Future?
By Julia Stone
Imagine some of the most populous cities around the world underwater: Miami, San Francisco, New York, Venice, Hong Kong. All of these cities will be three feet underwater or flooded during high tide by 2100. According to a report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we can expect global temperatures to rise 5˚ C, or 9˚ F, by the end of the century, resulting in sea level rise of almost three feet. Sea level rise will put millions of people at risk, including up to 1 million residents in my home state of California. While most headlines regarding climate change have been particularly grim (especially after this fire season), scientists have proposed technology that could help us combat the ensuing catastrophic weather events and general destruction. This new technology is geoengineering – and it comes with great potential and great risk.
According to a report by the Royal Society, geoengineering deliberately manipulates the environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change. Geoengineering uses technology to influence the climate, engineering the Earth’s environment on a mass scale. Geoengineering takes two forms: carbon dioxide removal, which includes planting trees and fertilizing the oceans with iron (which can create problems through potential dead zones), and solar radiation management (SRM), which changes the Earth’s fundamental energy balance by reflecting or intercepting sunlight before it reaches the surface. SRM reduces the quantity of solar radiation received and therefore the heat that reaches the Earth’s surface from space. Examples of this include painting rooftops white to increase the albedo (or reflectivity) of the surface, placing mirrors in space to deflect radiation, and, most famously, injecting sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere to block and scatter incoming radiation, similar to conditions after a massive volcanic eruption. SRM is where most concerns are raised, because it tries to offer a quick fix to climate issues instead of solving the core contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, or the root of the problem. Instead of trying to lower our emissions of greenhouse gases, we try to alter the most fundamental aspect of Earth’s climate – how much solar energy Earth receives.
Potential benefits of geoengineering include the ability to significantly lower the speed and extent at which the planet warms. Studies show that the regions that will experience the largest impact from climate change are also the most likely to see solar engineering greatly reduce that impact. The sulfate aerosol program only costs $2 billion per year over the first 15 years of deployment, which is pocket change compared to the trillion dollars that will be incurred by climate and sea rise damage. Faster, cheaper, and easier, solar geoengineering could reduce flooding and losses from sea level rise; California may have a particular interest in geoengineering, considering the billions of dollars in infrastructure and homes that are at risk. Geoengineering provides many benefits, yet comes with its own unique set of issues.
The most glaring issue is the uncertainty and risk of using this technology. There will naturally be many side effects, which may include exacerbating the ozone hole, disrupting the Asian monsoons that billions of people depend on for sustenance, alter cloud forming processes resulting in droughts in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, and more. It is important to note that studies have shown that no region of the world will be significantly worse off (such as intense temperature fluctuations, change in rainfall, or extreme drought). However, while regions may maintain the same average rainfall, it could shift ever so slightly across a national border, disrupting agriculture, water supplies, and causing conflict between countries as their most basic necessity is threatened. There is also the potential to become locked in a perpetual cycle of having to geoengineer in greater amounts. If we use geoengineering technology without simultaneously effectively cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, our planet would experience catastrophic and rapid climate shifts, especially if we ever had to stop geoengineering for any reason.
Most importantly, potential risks are not merely technological and physical, but also morally and ethically significant. Should we purposely manipulate the climate at such a large scale? Is it our place to play “God”? Who would receive the power to decide when and how to deploy the technology, and who will hold them accountable if something goes awry? Who will receive the power to set the global thermostat? Many might point to those that have done the worst for our planet so far regarding emissions, and many Western countries as well as China are already conducting research on solar geoengineering. However, if leaders have the power to manipulate weather to their liking or for a strategic advantage, they could use it for political and military purposes, creating new international conflict and undermining relationships between countries.
With further research, solar geoengineering could be a great resource for helping us mitigate climate change. Solar energy has the potential to be an insurance policy in our fight against global warming and sea level rise. However, we can’t rely on geoengineering as a Hail Mary, or last-ditch effort, to save us. We need to continue to focus our priorities and resources on greenhouse gas emissions. Solar geoengineering can be helpful with other climate actions, not distracting from the real issue at hand. Humanity is too interested in quick fixes; we need to be cautionary in using this as a false sense of insurance against the worst of our destructive behavior. We must change our behavior and society as a whole from the ground up, redefining our consumption patterns and societal norms, to create the real solution to climate change. With this in mind, solar geoengineering is a beacon of hope amongst the headlines of disheartenment, a potential aide as we embark on redefining our society in pursuit of a more ethical and harmonious world.
Author: Julia is a Georgetown University Student in the Core Pathways.