The Way We Talk About Geoengineering Matters
By Shuchi Talati
Solar geoengineering describes a set of approaches that would reflect sunlight to cool the planet. The most prevalent of these approaches entails mimicking volcanic eruptions by releasing aerosols (tiny particles) into the upper atmosphere to reduce global temperatures — a method that comes with immense uncertainty and risk. We don't yet know how it will affect regional weather patterns, and in turn its geopolitical consequences. One way we can attempt to understand potential outcomes is through models.
Models are representations of complex phenomena that are used to approximate outcomes. While they have limitations, they are an important tool to help scientists and decision makers understand potential futures based on scientific, technological and policy changes. With both potential and profound risks and uncertainties, we need more expansive modeling research on solar geoengineering techniques — not only to understand possible environmental impacts and risks, but political and social consequences as well.
Without looking at this broader range of outcomes, the messaging behind solar geoengineering can then lead to simplifications and mischaracterizations of its potential in the media. In spaces where public familiarity is low and risks are high, scientists and journalists should both be responsible for capturing the nuance and complexities around geoengineering — only a full picture will enable an informed public debate.
How We Use Modeling Must Evolve
In the case of solar geoengineering, models offer the opportunity to examine questions on a global scale — a scale at which real world experiments aren't yet feasible or ethical. A small set of researchers have been examining the potential outcomes of solar geoengineering through modeling impacts for several years. This research has been valuable in gaining a deeper understanding of the possible consequences of deploying solar geoengineering. However, many of the scenarios analyzed have been under idealized, or "best case" conditions — in other words, we're not comprehensively looking at what could go wrong.
And as we all know too well, the real world rarely imitates the best-case scenario. An example that comes to mind is that of DDT. Developed as an insecticide, DDT was extremely effective at reducing mosquito populations for a number of years during and after World War II. However, widespread use of the chemical led to massive environmental harm due to a failure to thoroughly investigate its impacts before widespread use — impacts that were not accounted for.
With more attention being paid to solar geoengineering, researchers need to explore a more meaningful range of deployment scenarios to understand risks and tradeoffs under a much broader set of conditions. Modeling is most helpful when used not just to predict a particular outcome under the best-case conditions, but rather to learn about many possible futures. With climate change, researchers have studied technical, economic and political narratives to capture a more realistic set of outcomes, and a similar strategy needs to happen for geoengineering. Only when research is done to know what can go wrong — in addition to what can go right — can we have a clearer idea of what the use of solar geoengineering could potentially entail.
In other high-risk fields, we require a high level of investigation about what could go wrong. Military war gaming exercises are a prime example: simulations of best- and worst-case scenarios are conducted by the government to see how politics, military strategy, and potential outcomes could interact in a myriad of ways — all before real combat takes place. Just as it's the responsibility of a carpenter to "measure twice and cut once," generals and admirals investigate war scenarios in order to save lives and minimize collateral damage. Solar geoengineering merits the same level of analysis.
Messaging and Media Portrayals Can Be Dangerously Misleading
Despite the risks of oversimplification, a new optimistic study titled, "Halving warming with idealized solar geoengineering moderates key climate hazards" was recently published in Nature Climate Change. Written by scientists at Harvard, Princeton, MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology, these researchers modeled a simplified proxy of solar geoengineering to counter half of future climate change (estimated as a doubling of carbon dioxide).
They found that under these specific conditions there could potentially be a decrease in some climate impacts (such as temperature, water availability and tropical storm intensity) across regions. However, in addition to other limitations, the study used an idealized solar geoengineering system in the model — in other words, simply turning down the sun without the use of a particular approach, like aerosols. This can be helpful to understand aspects of solar geoengineering, but without a technology in place, it's not realistic to make assertions about who might be worse off since use of that technology would come with its own set of risks.
With a lack of realistic exploration of solar geoengineering, the messaging behind the technology led to overstated conclusions and mischaracterizations of its impacts in the media. While the authors were upfront about their use of an idealized scenario in the title of the journal article, some media stories focused on the benefits of solar geoengineering with limited discussion of the modeling constraints. Researchers must be responsible for putting their results in the context of its overall significance. The lack of doing so led to many article headlines framing the study as having much broader implications than merited. Some of these include:
"The Side Effects of Solar Geoengineering Could Be Minimal" - WIRED
"The case for spraying (just enough) chemicals into the sky to fight climate change: A new study says geoengineering could cut global warming in half — with no bad side effects." - Vox
"Upon reflection, solar geoengineering might not be a bad idea" - The New York Times (subscription required)
"Radical plan to artificially cool Earth's climate could be safe, study finds" - The Guardian
"Solar geoengineering could offset global warming without causing harm" - Axios
In an era characterized by 280-character tweets, headlines matter. These oversimplifications from reputable news organizations do a disservice to geoengineering discussions. If readers moved past the headlines, they'd find that while journalists and authors often qualified the findings, there were extremely mixed messages about the real meaning of these results. Just as importantly, we need studies that would characterize a more realistic range of scenarios. As a newly emerging topic for public debate, it is crucial that solar geoengineering is presented in an accurate way. False impressions will only harm us when society needs to make critical decisions on how to approach it.
3 Key Dangers of Solar #Geoengineering and Why Some Critics Urge a Global Ban https://t.co/LyaOtKe4D6 @thetroublemag @DeSmogBlog— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1544752828.0
Shuchi Talati is a UCS Fellow on solar geoengineering research governance and public engagement with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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