We are entering the final days of COP27, the annual UN climate summit, and it’s safe to say that this year’s edition was disappointing to say the least. It was widely criticized by experts and climate activists and drew heavy criticism for being sponsored by companies like Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest plastic polluter.
Moreover, like so many climate summits in the past, little action has taken place in terms of concrete climate action and policy. In fact, one could argue that the most important decisions to fight climate change were not taken at COP27, but rather at the G20 summit between the United States and China. Similarly, the US government also signaled last month that it was reviewing one of the most controversial and consequential climate change tactics to date.
On October 13, the White House announced that it was funding a five-year research plan into one of the most controversial proposals to combat climate change: geoengineering, or technologies and innovations that can be used to alter artificially the state of the Earth. climate.
The report will focus specifically on a form of geoengineering known as solar radiation management. This is a technique that basically involves spraying fine aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the Earth. The idea is that once reflected, there will be less heat and temperatures will drop.
The research plan will model how SRM might impact the atmosphere and assess its viability as a potential technique used to “manage near-term climate risk”. In other words: we want to know whether or not we should include this in our “climate catastrophe icebreaking” box.
Although it sounds a bit bonkers, the world has seen inadvertent SRMs before after large volcanic eruptions threw massive amounts of gas and debris into the atmosphere and blocked out the sun. The eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1816 brought what has been called “the year without a summer” across Europe and North America after temperatures plummeted by 3 degrees Celsius.
In some context, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement included a target to keep temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius (with a stretch target of 1.5 degrees Celsius which we absolutely fell for). Thus, a controlled version of SRM is often seen as a viable method to prevent the worst weather disasters. Even the UN recognized the potential of this technology at COP27, much to the chagrin of many activists who fervently oppose geoengineering.
“Geoengineering is a sign of industrial desperation,” said Panganga Pungowiyi, an organizer at the Indigenous Environmental Network, said during a panel at the climate summit.
Either way, it’s a radical and potentially life-saving research plan, and some of its oldest and most ardent proponents think it’s cause for celebration.
“I was delighted to learn that the US government is funding a five-year research plan,” Stephen Salter, Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh and marine engineer, told The Daily Beast. “It’s an indication that they are finally taking the issue seriously.
For decades, Salter has championed geoengineering as a viable tactic to deal with worsening climate problems around the world. He even invented several devices and systems capable of solving these problems, such as the “Salter well”, which was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2007 and which he believes could sufficiently cool the temperatures of the ocean to prevent the formation of powerful storms.
Salter was also one of the first researchers to propose SRM as a way to cool the Earth. However, all of his proposals and ideas have largely fallen on deaf ears due to what he describes as “policy-maker stupidity” in government. He has a bit of a hard time on this subject: in 2005, the British government rejected his proposal to use SRM to prevent the rise in sea temperature.
This is why the White House’s willingness to invest in solar geoengineering research is so important. The US government recognizes that we may have to turn to incredibly drastic experimental measures to stop the climate catastrophe: blocking out the sun. If the United States does, many other countries could also follow.
“It’s like the airbags in your car. You never want to use them, but you’ll be glad you have them when you do.”
— Andrew Dessler, Texas A&M
“I hope that [the five-year-research plan] will encourage people in other countries and that some of the money will go to engineering, not just governance, which is where most go now,” Salter added.
But, of course, such a measure is not without risk. Critics of geoengineering warn that this could have unintended consequences that reverberate around the world. After all, when you spray aerosols into the atmosphere, they will spread. Its effects would be felt everywhere no matter where you originally sprayed it. This could lead to a butterfly effect of disastrous events.
For example, temperatures can drop so low that they lead to crop losses, which we have already experienced in the year without summer. Changes in the atmosphere could also intensify weather phenomena such as storms. Some research suggests solar geoengineering could even spread disease.
But Salter believes the risks are often overstated. He claims that the SRM is also a fully reversible system that can be shut down with “the click of a mouse”, after which “the effects will disappear with the next downpour”. SRM would just be a tactic that helps us buy time while we try to solve problems like reducing carbon emissions.
Additionally, the White House’s five-year research plan would also study the dangers and risks associated with solar geoengineering. When we employ a method like this, it would not be without extensive modelling. We would at least have a good approximation of what would happen if that happened.
Moreover, we could be at even greater risk if we do nothing at all.
“It’s like the airbags in your car,” Andrew Dessler, director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University, told The Daily Beast. “You never want to use them, but you’ll be glad you have them when you do.”
Dessler thinks that while we need to do all we can now to limit global temperature rise by aggressively reducing carbon emissions, it’s best to have solar geoengineering systems ready just in case. we would need it in the future. So to do that, we need to start researching the approach now, so we know what to expect when we need to use it.
“You can imagine a scenario where we are in 2040. Climate change is out of control. People suddenly realize, shit, this is awful,” he said. “You have to do something immediately. In this case, SRM might be your least bad option.
“That’s not the way you want to handle the problem,” he added. “The right way to deal with the problem is to start reducing your emissions immediately, so that you don’t put yourself in this situation. But I definitely see a way in the future where we need to deploy it.
As the saying goes, drastic times call for drastic measures. What does he say when the US government has decided to put some skin in the game and fund research and resources in solar geoengineering?
At the recent UN climate summit, Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced that the world was on the “road to climate hell”. Not only have we failed to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold set by the Paris Climate Agreement, but we are also well on our way to surpassing the 2 degree Celsius target.
This means that we increasingly find ourselves with limited options. With our backs against the wall, an ocean rising at our feet, and the planet burning around us, we may have no choice but to use the airbag and pray for it to save us. all.
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