3 Key Dangers of Solar Geoengineering and Why Some Critics Urge a Global Ban
By Justin Mikulka
These research efforts, which could take shape as soon as the first half of 2019, fall under the banner of a geoengineering technology known as solar radiation management, which is sometimes called "sun dimming."
However, less than two weeks after the announcement, the climate science and policy institute Climate Analytics took aim at these ambitions in a new briefing titled "Why geoengineering is not a solution to the climate problem," which goes as far as recommending a global ban on solar geoengineering.
The group's briefing warns about the dangers of proceeding with solar radiation management (SRM) in particular.
The basic idea behind SRM is to release particles into the earth's stratosphere, the atmospheric layer approximately 6–30 miles above the surface, where they would then reflect some of the sun's light (and heat) away from Earth, resulting in atmospheric cooling.
Scientists to pilot geoengineering 'sun dimming' trial next year - Times https://t.co/vGyMNBpSAS https://t.co/pLe8k4jBPf— ECIU (@ECIU)1543662121.0
Harvard's scientists working on this concept point to the particles released by volcanic eruptions as real-world examples of how it might work. One such example is the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, an event which released large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere.
According to NASA, after Mount Pinatubo's eruption, "Over the course of the next two years strong stratospheric winds spread these aerosol particles around the globe," which led to a temporary global cooling of about 1° Fahrenheit over the following 15 months. The Harvard team plans to investigate calcium carbonate, a common calcium supplement and antacid, as a potential particle to use instead of sulfur dioxide.
Despite this parallel, why is Climate Analytics warning against solar radiation management? For a long list of reasons, including the potential for some pretty disastrous consequences.
1. Solar Radiation Management Doesn't Address the Real Issue
Earth's climate is warming because humans are pumping large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, with carbon dioxide from fossil fuel-burning topping that list. As Climate Analytics notes, solar radiation management "does not address the drivers of human-induced climate change." Instead, the briefing says, this geoengineering approach "would mask warming temporarily" in a best-case scenario, while representing a fundamental and "potentially dangerous" threat to the earth's basic climate operations.
As Mt. Pinatubo's eruption showed, the basic concept behind the Harvard team's proposal certainly has the potential to cool the planet, but Climate Analytics notes the many sizable and unique risks to attempting solar radiation management on a long-term, global scale.
Critics of solar radiation management—and there are many—note that one of the biggest risks of this approach is that it becomes a distraction from the primary goal of decarbonizing the global economy in order to address the root cause of climate change.
"Geoengineering perpetuates the false belief that today's unjust, ecologically, and socially devastating industrial model of production and consumption cannot be changed and that we therefore need techno-fixes to tame its effects."
Even David Keith, one of the Harvard scientists working on solar radiation management, shares the concern that this work could distract from the required efforts to reduce global carbon emissions.
"One of the main concerns I and everyone involved in this have, is that Trump might tweet 'geoengineering solves everything — we don't have to bother about emissions.' That would break the slow-moving agreement among many environmental groups that sound research in this field makes sense," Keith said in 2017, according to The Guardian.
After scientists' recent announcement of a very short timeline for the world to drastically cut carbon emissions, some are viewing solar radiation management as a way to allow for continued fossil fuel use while hoping for "techno-fixes" to avert global catastrophe.
2. Risks Far Outweigh Potential Reward
In a world where even predicting the weather is more difficult due to climate change, it isn't hard to fathom that changing the global climate quickly could have many unknown consequences. But as Climate Analytics points out, there are plenty of known risks and concerns surrounding solar radiation management, including the following:
Weather System Changes: According to the Climate Analytics briefing: "Solar radiation management would alter the global hydrological cycle," which means changes to global weather patterns, including monsoon activity. Tweaking monsoon activity may not bode well for many people around the world. "These [monsoon] rains not only play a vital role in food security and exports, but also provide essential water for the very large, and often already vulnerable, populations," states the briefing.
Ocean Acidification: Another negative impact of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is the acidification of the oceans. Reflecting away sunlight does nothing to address this problem fundamentally caused by excess carbon dioxide.
Global Agriculture: While increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations can be beneficial up to a point for some plants, that benefit likely would be canceled out by the reduction in actual sunlight reaching plant life, which is necessary for photosynthesis.
Decreased Renewable Energy Production: As with agriculture, lower levels of sunlight reaching the earth's surface would reduce solar power production. And changing the global climate and weather could also alter wind power potential.
3. Geopolitical and Catastrophic Risks
While purposefully altering the global atmosphere would be an unprecedented project in both scale and impact, the endeavor actually would not cost very much and could be done unilaterally by one country. Solar radiation management would likely affect different parts of the world in different ways, some positively and some negatively.
New Security Beat: Panelists Call for Creation of World Commission to Handle Solar Radiation Management https://t.co/xyoWQAyxtI— Climate Engineering (@Climate Engineering)1544193212.0
The Climate Analytics briefing highlights this potential: "SRM will strongly alter the climate system producing 'winners' and 'losers' in different regions and with different levels of deployment. It could therefore become a source of massive conflict between nations."
This potential for geopolitical conflict is one reason Climate Analytics is calling for a global ban on solar radiation management.
Another reason is because the group views the approach as a grand form of "kicking the can"—that is, the can leaking too many greenhouse gases—down the road. And once solar radiation management is deployed on a global scale, it has to continue even in the event of grave consequences because stopping the program would induce something known as "termination shock."
Climate Analytics predicts that termination shock—the result of stopping an SRM program once begun—would result in "very rapid and large-scale planetary warming" that could occur "on a timescale of months."
Geoengineering and Sun Dimming
With Harvard leading solar geoengineering field tests and the long-term support of people such as Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, the idea that "techno-fixes" will save the planet from climate catastrophe isn't going away. Especially with major media outlets such as CNN running headlines suggesting these approaches could be "the answer to global warming."
Going out for......Dim Sun? Who is joining me!!?? https://t.co/54qywPmb5F— Director Questlove (@Director Questlove)1543048346.0
The answer to global warming has been around for more than fifty years. The head of the American Petroleum Institute spelled out part of this solution at an industry conference in 1965 in which he said, "There is still time to save the world's peoples from the catastrophic consequence of pollution, but time is running out."
The solution he acknowledged then was "an alternative nonpolluting means of powering automobiles, buses, and trucks."
While the world has far less time to act than in 1965, the solution to global warming remains more of a political challenge than a technological one.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
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By Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
The authors of the many new books released in just the past few months (or scheduled to be published soon) seem to have anticipated this pivotal moment.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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