Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Solar Radiation ManagementA Geoengineering Band-aid for Earth

By Teresa DattaPublished March 24, 2017

Technological innovations have been the root of climate damage, but what if they are also the key to fixing our environment? What if we can intervene in nature to slow the processes of global warming and avoid irreversible damage to the environment? The idea of geoengineering our planet has sparked many ethical, legal, and logistical debates. Although the scientific theories behind geoengineering solutions are merited, more research must be performed to determine if this is a feasible method for preventing climate catastrophe.

The most promising geoengineering solution according to Douglas MacMartin, a research professor at the California Institute of Technology and Cornell University,  is Solar Radiation Management (SRM). This technology mitigates incoming solar radiation to offset the warming effects of greenhouse gases. One proposed method for implementing SRM is to release large quantities of chemical aerosols into the stratosphere in order to reflect solar radiation. This would mimic the effects of volcanic eruptions, which produce large clouds of ash and sulphur-rich vapor that have been found to have cooling effects on global temperatures. For example, the 1982 eruption of El Chichon in Mexico lowered global temperatures by 0.3-0.5 degrees celsius. Solar radiation management is also relatively feasible- the technology to fly aircrafts to the stratosphere to disperse radiation-reflecting aerosols is available, and annual costs would be only 1-3 Billion dollars.

Although stratospheric aerosol engineering is viable and would quickly cool the globe, there are serious questions about the effects of introducing such particles into the stratosphere. This practice would alter our atmosphere and may have adverse  effects, including decreased precipitation. Further, there are ethical and logistical dilemmas. Geoengineering techniques are band-aids; they can reduce the negative effects of global warming, but they do not resolve the underlying problem of carbon dioxide emissions. Thus, implementing geoengineering solutions may reduce our motivation to solve the real issues. In addition, there is a question of who has the authority to implement and be responsible for geoengineered solutions to climate change. If utilized, these techniques will have a global impact and cross-continental side-effects. If things go wrong, who will be responsible? Geoengineered solutions cannot be implemented by just one nation; they require international consensus. Geoengineering techniques also carry the risk of affecting different regions unequally because it is very difficult to perfectly counteract climate change. Since we cannot predict the exact effects of geoengineering solutions, nations must be willing to accept this risk to achieve the global benefits of climate change mitigation.

The institutional consensus on SRM solutions is, as Professor MacMartin states, "If solar engineering is used, we must get it right the first time." Thus, more research must be conducted to determine if this is a "good idea" and to clarify the possible ramifications of SRM. Although this is an accomplishable task, with some experts hypothesizing that we could have functional deployment by 2050,  research and planning must begin now. Most current SRM research is produced by running simulations on Earth models, but future research would benefit from the use of small-scale implementations in our atmosphere. These could showcase the unknown risks of the procedure, but the question of who has the authority to implement SRM solutions remains.

In January 2017, the White House  recommended more research on geoengineering solutions in order to "understand potential pathways for climate intervention" and "the possible consequences of  any such measures." I agree with this stance. As climate change "tipping-points" near, governments have not done enough to ensure sustainable energy sources and a healthy environment for the future. More research on geoengineering should be conducted and recommended in order to determine the logistics of  solutions such as Solar Radiation Management.

Ideally, we would never have to use geoengineering solutions and our society would focus instead on correcting the root of our climate problems by converting to more sustainable energy sources and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. However, because hypothetical goals to decrease carbon emissions by such drastic amounts seem unlikely to be reached if we continue on our current path, geoengineering solutions must be considered in order to avoid climate catastrophes such as sea level rises and extreme weather events. After all, a band-aid is better than nothing.