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Study creates roadmap for responsible geoengineering research

Simply reducing greenhouse gas emissions probably is not going to be sufficient for the planet to escape catastrophic damage from climate change, scientists say.

Additional actions will be required, and one option is solar geoengineering, which could lower temperatures by methods such as reflecting sunlight away from the Earth through the deployment of aerosols in the stratosphere. However, the prospect of experimenting with the Earth’s atmosphere has left some people skeptical, and some outright scared, of the process.

A new study, “Mission-Driven Research for Stratospheric Aerosol Geoengineering,” published Jan. 7 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sets out to establish a roadmap for responsible exploration of geoengineering.

“Part of the genesis of this paper is that a long time ago I got tired of going to meetings and not being able to say much more than, ‘If you do geoengineering, it will get colder,’” said lead author Douglas MacMartin, senior research associate and senior lecturer in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“We actually need to do the research to understand what the impacts are and understand the uncertainties,” MacMartin said. “There are obvious questions about how to govern the technology if it was actually being deployed, or how to make decisions about deploying it. But there’s also been a lot of discussion about how to even govern the research process – and that question should start with understanding what sort of research needs to be done.”

While scientific research traditionally has been motivated by the innate curiosity of scientists grappling with an interesting question, this study finds that geoengineering requires a more mission-driven approach with a clear goal: informing policy.

“It’s the research community’s responsibility to ensure that before people get to a point of saying, ‘Let’s consider using geoengineering,’ we’re able to provide enough information to either say ‘No, here’s why not’ or ‘If you were to do it, this is the best way to do it, here is what we think the impacts are, here are the uncertainties,’” MacMartin said.

The study, which MacMartin co-authored with Ben Kravitz, assistant professor at Indiana University, focuses on the idea of releasing sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, mimicking the eruption of a volcano. This follows a natural process and thus would limit the “unknown unknowns” and enable researchers to calibrate their models. That’s important because, the study finds, that near-term geoengineering research will primarily be modeling.

“I think it’s reasonable to expect that there will be some need for [more] tests, but those will always be small,” MacMartin says. “The upshot of that is, in terms of research governance, it does not necessarily need to address transboundary issues or worry about a slippery slope to deployment in which you agree to one scale of experiment, and then it gets a little bigger, and a little bigger still. 

“The research is always going to be very small scale, so there’s a bright line between activities that look like research and activities that look like deployment,” MacMartin added. “Engaging in geoengineering research itself doesn’t have to be scary. I think if you look carefully at what needs to be done, it looks a lot more like climate science research, but focused on a particular goal.”

Given that a recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that global warming will pass 1.5 C around 2040, MacMartin sees an urgent need to start making inroads in exploring geoengineering research. It could take up to 20 years before scientists can help policymakers make an informed decision about the effectiveness of the technology.

“I think the main message of this study is that it explicitly asks us to prioritize our research,” Kravitz said. “What do we want to learn, how do we want to learn it, and why will that resolve the most important uncertainties in geoengineering? Large engineering projects handle these sorts of questions all the time with well-established tools. It seems like modifying the climate, the largest engineering project humanity has ever faced, could use some of the same tools.”

MacMartin said geoengineering should be viewed as a supplement to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not a substitution. He likes to think of the process as an airbag.

“If you know you’re going to get into an accident, you ought to take your foot off the gas and put it on the brake, but you might want airbags, too,” MacMartin said. “The airbag doesn’t change the fact you’re going to get into an accident, but it does mean you’ll have less damage.”

The research was supported by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

David Nutt is managing editor of the Atkinson Center.

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