Climate Engineering: From Science Fiction to Reality


When you think about climate change solutions, you might picture sleek electric vehicles or rows of solar panels. Both of these examples reduce or even eliminate the need for fossil fuels because they can run on renewable energy sources. But another technique that has been gaining more traction over the years takes climate action to new and unprecedented heights: geo-engineering. Geo-engineering is a broad experimental field designed to mitigate the effects of global warming. Ideas that have been considered or even implemented in the past are fertilizing oceans with iron or filtering the air with carbon scrubbers. Another innovative but controversial form of geoengineering is Solar Radiation Management (SRM), where sulfates are manually released into the upper atmosphere to reflect back some of the sun’s energy coming into Earth and therefore have a potential cooling effect.

What is Solar Radiation Management?

SRM can be understood as a form of climate manipulation, where artificial changes are made to the environment to obtain a desired result. In order to better understand the purpose and mechanism behind SRM, however, we must turn to a naturally-occurring phenomenon: an active volcano. In 1991, when Mount Pinatubo erupted, roughly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide were released into the atmosphere. The elevated concentrations of sulfuric gas deflected some of the sun’s radiation entering the atmosphere, leading to a decrease in global temperatures by 0.5C between 1991 and 1993.

SRM theoretically works in the same way by injecting sulfur dioxide into the air, but instead of producing dramatic temperature variations, this technology is designed to control output times and SO2 concentrations. Most research, however, has been relegated to climate models and simulations, including a 2008 report that predicted the change and global temperature and climate once SO2 was added to the atmosphere. Researchers concluded that the higher the SO2 concentration added, the greater the temperature would drop globally. The International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) report found that if carbon dioxide production was doubled, approximately 2.6 million tons of SO2 a day would need to be sent into air to mitigate the subsequent warming effect that would occur. Without solar radiation management, the IRGC estimates that 225 million tons of carbon dioxide would need to be eliminated every day for the next 25 years in order to produce the same effect.

Climate Change, Research, and Developing Countries

While research on solar radiation management and its effects have spanned the last few decades, developing countries are noticeably absent from SRM research. A recent report in Nature examined how most studies on this topic are concentrated in the global north rather than evenly dispersed throughout. They argued that developing countries needed a stronger voice in this research because they have the most to lose or to gain from climate action and policy. The International Monetary Fund noted that geographically, many developed countries are located along the equator where the climate is generally hotter. Rising temperatures could dry up the soil more quickly in these areas, leading to higher climate variability. From an economic perspective, the IMF noted in their 2017 World Economic Outlook report that a 1C increase in temperature would have a more negative effect on the real per capita input of developing and low income countries.

Education is Key

With so much on the line for nations like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Nigeria, research and awareness about SRM is critical. One organization that is leading the charge is the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, or SRMGI. Founded in 2010 by the Royal Society (UK), the Environmental Defense Fund (US), and The World Academy of Science (Italy), this organization was designed to educate people around the world about solar geoengineering. In the past eight years, SRMGI has partnered with organizations in over 20 different countries in leading workshops and informational sessions for researchers, scientists, and lawmakers. Earlier this year, SRMGI introduced the DECIMALS Fund to not only help researchers in developing countries conduct their own studies but to gain further insight at international conferences and eventually share their findings with local communities and government agencies.

The research surrounding SRM still has a long way to go before policy discussions or even implementation can take place, but in order to better understand the impact geoengineering could have on all areas of the world, developing countries should be at the forefront of this conversation.

This week on the Cooler Earth podcast, we take a closer look at solar geoengineering and the risks and benefits associated with it. We are joined by Dr. Jennie Stephens, Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at Northeastern University.