Research Needs for Solar Radiation Management (Climate Geoengineering)

Professor David Keith of the University of Calgary is both a scientist actively engaged in climate geoengineering research (primarily air capture technology) and one of the most thoughtful voices on ethical and governance considerations. Instructors seeking a good reading on geoengineering should check out Professor Keith’s February testimony before the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Committee on Science and Technology. While Keith’s testimony focuses on solar radiation management (SRM) geoengineering technologies, virtually all of his remarks are equally opposite to other geoengineering approaches also.

Among the take-aways from Dr. Keith’s testimony:

  1. Development of SRM technologies should be as transparent as possible, including the banning of commercial or proprietary work;
  2. While the risk of SRM creating a moral hazard (i.e. reducing political will to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) may exist, the potential advantages outweigh this consideration given potential ” for unlikely but rapid and high-consequence climate impacts;”
  3. An expenditure of $10 billion annually could roughly exert enough of a cooling effect to counteract the heating from a doubling of atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide;
  4. Potential environmental impacts of SRM can’t be assessed without field testing, though this can be restricted to releasing tons of sulfur or other particles rather than megatons.
  • Research programs should start slowly, lest excessive funding fuel development of “ill conceived” projects, which could also engender a backlash that could doom systematic research
  • A U.S.¬† research program should draw upon the expertise of a number of agencies, because no one agency would have the expertise to conduct such a program. Potential pertinent agencies would include NSF and NASA;
  • Given the controversial nature of geoengineering research, both proponents and adversaries should participate. One possible approach is the “blue team/red team” system used in military preparedness planning
  1. Beyond the research phase, there is the imposing issue of international governance given the potential for States, desperate to address an impending/ongoing climatic crisis, a State might choose to inject sulfur into the amtosphere without prior risk assessment or international consultation;
  2. International cooperation should be built from the bottom up, in the same manner¬† that the treaty on landmines grew out of initiatives by NGOs. Hasty pursuit of an international regulation could result in total ban on research or “burdensome vetting of even innocuous research projects”

Keith’s testimony could generate some good class discussion. Some potential questions include:

  • Do the students agree that SRM initiatives should be developed from the bottom up, or would it be better to seek to develop an international regulatory framework at the outset? Is the landmine treaty a relevant instrument for comparison?
  • Do the students agree that the threat of climate change outweighs the potential moral hazards of geoengineering schemes?
  • Keith alludes to potential environmental impacts of SRM; what are some of these impacts and how would be address them in the context of an international regulatory framework?

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