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 Karen Charman
When President Donald Trump visited California on September 14 and dismissed the state Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot's plea to recognize the role of climate change in the midst of the Golden State's worst and most dangerous recorded fire season to date, he gaslighted the tens of millions of West Coast residents suffering through the ordeal.
Foxes Guarding the Henhouse<p>Before he assumed power, Trump attacked regulations as unnecessary barriers to freedom and economic prosperity. Since taking office, he has targeted anything enacted by the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and taken steps to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, the international effort to combat climate change. He has also staffed heads of key agencies with climate deniers of various stripes, forced out career public servants and created a hostile work environment for those who don't profess loyalty to his deregulatory agenda.</p><p>Like Trump himself, some of his cabinet choices displayed an audacious penchant for <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/27/us/donald-trump-taxes.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage" target="_blank">self-dealing</a> and abusing their positions of authority. One example is Trump's first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who aggressively worked to overturn Obama's climate regulations, spent most of his time in <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-epa-head-steps-down-after-wave-of-ethics-management-scandals/2018/07/05/39f4251a-6813-11e8-bea7-c8eb28bc52b1_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">private meetings</a> with fossil fuel and chemical company executives, sidelined career EPA staff and reconfigured independent scientific advisory boards to make them more supportive of the industries EPA is charged with regulating. Dubbed "<a href="https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-pruitt-leaves-20180705-story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials in U.S. history</a>," Pruitt resigned in disgrace after revelations about his multiple brazen abuses, including using the agency as his personal concierge service and piggy bank.</p><p>Pruitt's deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/andrew-wheeler-acting-epa-administrator-former-number-two-before-scott-pruitt-resignation/" target="_blank">former coal industry lobbyist</a> and longtime Republican Washington insider, took over and has continued Trump's deregulatory agenda apace.</p><p>At the Department of Interior (DOI), a sprawling agency that oversees 75 percent of the country's public federal lands and includes the U.S. Geological Survey, which is tasked with evaluating natural hazards that threaten life and the health of our ecosystems, Trump installed another flamboyant anti-environmentalist to head the agency. Like Pruitt, Trump's first Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke aggressively attacked environmental regulations, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/05/07/epa-dismisses-half-of-its-scientific-advisers-on-key-board-citing-clean-break-with-obama-administration/" target="_blank">ditched more than 200 advisory panels</a>, and pushed to open up vast swaths of public land to oil and gas drilling. Described by one environmental group as "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/interior-secretary-zinke-resigns-amid-investigations/2018/12/15/481f9104-0077-11e9-ad40-cdfd0e0dd65a_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation's history</a>," Zinke was forced out after numerous highly publicized conflict-of-interest scandals.</p><p>The DOI is now run by Zinke's deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, another longtime Republican Washington insider and former oil industry lobbyist who has also been the subject of <a href="https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/05/this-is-still-happening-david-bernhardt-trump-lincoln.html" target="_blank">several government ethics complaints</a> for various violations favoring polluting industries.</p><p>More recently, longtime climate change denier David Legates, a climatologist at the University of Delaware previously <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19032015/u-delaware-refuses-disclose-funding-sources-its-climate-contrarian" target="_blank">funded by fossil fuel interests</a>, was hired for a <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/12/912301325/longtime-climate-science-denier-hired-at-noaa" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">top job</a> advancing weather modeling and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Legates has called for <a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2020/9/18/noaa_david_legates_climate_crisis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">increasing carbon emissions</a>.</p><p>The Trump administration has done much more than stack government agencies with fossil fuel industry proponents. It has removed or diluted discussion of climate change from as many government platforms as it can and decimated independent scientific advisory boards that provide unbiased, fact-based information the government needs to enact policies that protect the public. It has also <a href="https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/482352-trump-budget-slashes-funding-for-epa-environmental-programs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slashed environmental agency staffing and budgets</a>.</p>
The Damage So Far<p>A September 17 <a href="https://rhg.com/research/the-rollback-of-us-climate-policy/" target="_blank">report</a> by the Rhodium Group calculates that 1.8 billion tons more greenhouse gases will be released over the next 15 years as a result of climate change rollbacks the Trump administration has achieved so far. These include repealing Obama's main climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, which was intended to reduce dirty emissions from power plants; increasing pollution from cars by rolling back fuel economy standards and challenging California's longtime authority to set stricter emissions standards; targeting controls on hydrofluorocarbons, powerful greenhouse gases used mainly in refrigerators and air conditioners that also destroy the Earth's protective ozone layer; and allowing unreported and unregulated emissions of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, by oil and gas companies.</p><p>Besides these measures, Trump is also trying to gut core environmental statutes like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, all of which were enacted to protect human health and preserve a livable world.</p><p>The Paris agreement aims to keep the rise in average global temperatures at less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and hopefully cap it at 1.5 degrees C or lower. We are now at approximately 1.2 degrees C and counting.</p>
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By Jan Ellen Spiegel
It wasn't so long ago that the issue of climate change was poised to play a huge – possibly even a decisive – role in the 2020 election, especially in the race for control of the U.S. Senate. Many people supporting Democratic candidates saw a possible Democratic majority as a hedge against a potential Trump re-election … a way to plug the firehose spray of more than 100 environmental regulation rollbacks and new anti-climate initiatives by the administration over its first term.
Potential Climate Voters<p>In a September 1 memo on climate and the election, Andrew Baumann, vice president of the consultants Global Strategy Group, wrote: "Few issues have seen as dramatic a shift in public opinion as climate change has over the last few years. Only marriage equality and the recent shift in views around racial justice outpace the rapid growth in the salience of climate change as an issue."</p><p>Calling it a "winning political issue" the memo says: "First, it is clearly a motivator for both younger and Latinx voters. Second, it has the power to move swing voters, particularly center-right white women."</p><p>Baumann points to a finding that when a group of such women were asked generic ballot questions, Democrats trailed by nine percentage points. But when the question was revised as a choice between:</p><p>"A Democrat who supports taking strong government action to combat climate change.<br>A Republican who opposes taking strong government action to combat climate change."</p><p>… the result was a 29 percentage point shift, putting Democrats ahead by 20 percentage points among that same group.</p><p>"I think it is playing a role," says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, a longtime outspoken climate activist who is on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and also on the Senate Democrats' Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. If Democrats win back the Senate, he stands to play an even more pivotal climate role as part of the majority. He is not up for re-election this year.</p><p><span></span>"I think from the Democratic side it's playing a role in generating enthusiasm – particularly making younger voters feel that they have a real stake in this election. On the Republican side, I think things have moved enough that candidates can no longer get away with simply scoffing about climate change."</p>
Climate a Top Concern for Youths, Latinx<p>So who's still thinking climate? Mostly young voters – 18 to 25 or 29 and Latinx voters.</p><p>Climate and the environment are the top concern among young voters, just above racism and healthcare according to <a href="https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">CIRCLE</a>, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which focuses on the political life of young people in the U.S. For Latinx youth, it drops a bit but remains in the top three.</p><p>The issues young people care about have an impact on how they volunteer their time, says Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher at CIRCLE. He says that's played out most notably through the Sunrise Movement, which focuses on climate change and the environment along with other key activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.</p><p>He points to polling this summer that showed that 83% of 18-to-29-year-olds felt they had the power to change things. "Young people feel much more empowerment than in 2016 and 2018," Lundberg says. "It's intentional these movements are carving out space for young people. It's an important strategy."</p><p>In positions of power in these organizations, young people have developed peer-to-peer outreach on activism. And Lundberg says young people have made the leap that connects activism to voting as a lever for change. "In the past in very close races, young people breaking heavily have provided the margin of victory," he says.</p><p>CIRCLE is highlighting 10 U.S. Senate races as ones in which young voters can be decisive. Several of them have notable climate or environmental components – most prominently the Colorado and Montana races.</p><p>The Republican incumbents in each state – Cory Gardner in Colorado and Steve Daines in Montana – are running against a popular Democratic governor – John Hickenlooper in Colorado, now out of office — and Steve Bullock, still the governor of Montana. Both governors have had to balance their state's fossil fuel economic interests with supporting climate change solutions.</p>
Tying Climate Change to the Economy<p>In August, Data for Progress, a progressive research think tank, released polling on climate change – including in the battleground Senate elections in Arizona, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina – showing voters back a Senate candidate supporting strong climate action.</p><blockquote>Climate change as 'mobilizing issue … key persuasion issue.'<br></blockquote><p>It also showed that linking climate change to the economy may be key. That means talking about clean energy and jobs together, says Danielle Deiseroth, climate data analyst for <a href="https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle" target="_blank">Data for Progress</a>. She says that in addition to jobs, climate change issues include climate justice and economic equality – both of heightened interest because of fallout from western wildfires.</p><p>"Climate change, we've observed over the last year or so, is a key mobilizing issue and a key persuasion issue," she says. "Climate issues can only grow support for Democratic candidates.</p><p>"I think it's pretty naive to say climate is the key issue for voters. For a lot of voters it really exemplifies so many things that are wrong with the Trump presidency," Deiseroth says.</p><p>So a factor among others. Helpful, but pivotal only in narrow circumstances.</p><p>At the League of Conservations Voters, a progressive environmentalist organization putting a lot of money and effort into the 2020 races, Senior Director of Political Affairs Craig Auster says: "I'll push back that climate change doesn't matter or isn't registering."</p><p>"It's still showing up in several Senate races. It's been playing a role in almost all of them."</p><p>Candidates are still talking about it, he says, pointing to Colorado, Montana, Iowa, and other states where ads are addressing climate and environmental issues. That shows the candidates believe their opponent is vulnerable on the issue or they're strong on it, he says.</p><p>Like others, Auster calls climate a motivator.</p><p>"Climate change matters," he says. "We have proof point after proof point about what's happening, whether it's a hurricane, a superstorm, derechos in Iowa, or wildfires out west.</p><p>"Pre-COVID it was top tier for Democratic voters along with healthcare. If COVID didn't happen I think climate would be a big deal."</p>
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