The Mainstreaming of Climate Engineering Has Begun

Climate Climate Engineering
The Mainstreaming of Climate Engineering Has Begun

For a couple decades, following along with climate engineering discussions could occasionally induce some déjà vu. The idea of intentionally messing with the climate system in order to counteract some or all of the warming humans have caused through burning fossil fuels has been controversial from the start. On one side, scientists and other experts might call for a carefully regulated research program on its potential risks and benefits; on the other, different scientists would say its risks are too difficult to pin down and it would offer the world an excuse to keep burning those dirty fuels. This went on for a while.

David Keith, the field’s most prominent academic, published “A Case for Climate Engineering” in 2013 (I reviewed it then). Journalist Eli Kintisch, author of the book “Hack The Planet,” called solar geoengineering or solar radiation modification, where we inject tons of tiny particles into the stratosphere to block some small amount of sunlight, “a bad idea whose time has come” — in 2010.

In the years since, the discussion has remained largely limited to scientific circles and an expert– or pundit-written op-ed here or there; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s huge reports have increasingly included climate engineering, and computer modeling studies have continued and expanded (including by scientists in the developing world, where both climate change and climate engineering are likely to have the most impact) — but in most respects the ideas have remained largely on the fringes of polite climate change society.

When a long-discussed solar geoengineering experiment known as SCoPEx was delayed in 2021 thanks to pushback in Sweden where it was set to take place, the field seemed truly stuck in the mud. The experiment itself was almost laughably low-risk. It would have tested a small balloon-based system that could in theory carry aerosol particles up to around 12 miles in the sky; it wasn’t even going to release any of those particles yet. But local reluctance as well as international concern over a third rail of climate change research was enough to scuttle even that meager attempt; SCoPEx was officially abandoned after a further period of study earlier this year.

But something funny happened while the op-eds continued and the famous experiments spluttered out. At some point starting in the past few years, as the seas boiled and temperature records fell and the ice began to wail its death knell from the poles, climate engineering took on an air of solidity, like an otherwise ethereal presence learning to interact with the living world.

Groups of scientists felt a need to launch pledges against solar geoengineering’s use; griftery start-ups conducted performative balloon launches and sold “cooling credits” for the few grams of aerosols the balloons released; just in the past couple of months major news outlets including NPR and the New York Times put out flashy stories about the startup world expanding and cloud-brightening experiments on decommissioned aircraft carriers.

And then this past weekend, another apparent step forward: The Washington Post‘s editorial board — notably not just another guest essay or op-ed — endorsed the idea that “temporarily cooling the planet might be worth trying at some point in the future, given the likelihood of future warming past any acceptable benchmark.” The editorial criticizes many world governments that “refuse to engage,” and while still stopping well short of calling for actual deployment of these technologies, argues that “the world needs to know exactly what its options are.”

This feels very much like an ongoing mainstreaming of a formerly fringe concept. It remains somewhat shrouded in noise, though — solar radiation modification, a concept that most agree is well within technological and economic reach at just a few billion dollars per year, can sometimes get lumped in with sci-fi wishcasting like giant multi-trillion-dollar space parasols. But climate engineering’s presence in major editorial pages, government-funded physical experiments, and international climate diplomacy suggests a serious attempt to cut through that noise, and potentially move a stagnant field a few steps closer to actual deployment.

In one sense, this represents yet another example of climate change timelines never quite matching up with reality. One could argue that the WaPo editorial probably should have made an appearance a decade ago — a decade where all ten years are now the ten warmest years on record. Everyone spent so long being terrified of even talking about the topic that the order of operations got all screwed up: the research, the risk-benefit equations, the international discussion, all of that needed to happen before Greenland crosses its tipping point (there is still time on that one, to be clear; just not much).

Though I personally would deeply prefer the world never had to resort to planetary engineering schemes, I have also long felt that it is going to happen regardless. The emissions trajectories just aren’t close to what’s needed, net-zero plans remain mired in magical thinking, and pretty soon the sheer deadly impact of warming is going to really make itself known. The problem with this delayed mainstreaming is that there might be a pretty big gap between doing solar radiation modification at all and doing solar radiation modification well. If countries start to get desperate — and they will — those years of déjà vu might come back to bite us.

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