A Northeastern energy-climate scholar and a global environmental scientist are cautioning against advancing solar geoengineering research without building greater societal legitimacy.
Toward Legitimacy of the Solar Geoengineering Research Enterprise by Jennie Stephens, Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at Northeastern University, and Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was published this month in The Royal Society as part of a collection of scientific publications examining the physical and social challenges of achieving the fundamental goal of the Paris Agreement. The agreement’s goal is to limit global average temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible.
“To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, it is dangerous to rely on technological innovations like solar geoengineering,” Stephens said. “We should instead be more aggressively accelerating social and institutional changes. Advancing solar geoengineering technologies poses multiple risks to society—environmental and geopolitical. Before proceeding, researchers and research funders have a responsibility to ensure geoengineering research is subject to legitimate societal review and scrutiny.”
Mounting concerns over climate risks is increasing calls for experiments testing the efficacy of solar geoengineering technologies, such as the sustained injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, which would reflect sunlight to rapidly lower Earth’s surface temperature.
Research proponents acknowledge such experiments may pose significant environmental and geopolitical risks, but argue these must be weighed against the potential benefits of solar geoengineering in limiting climate risks faced by the world’s most vulnerable nations and communities. Stephens and Frumhoff scrutinize this argument and call on researchers, research funders and policymakers to ensure proposed experiments are subject to legitimate societal review and informed consent.
“Meeting the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals requires swift and deep reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases,” Frumhoff said. “Atmospheric tests of solar geoengineering technologies to also limit temperature rise, if carried out, must be financed only by nations and other entities fully committed to reducing emissions. We call on researchers proposing solar geoengineering experiments to seek meaningful societal input, including from the most climate vulnerable nations and communities, which are among its intended beneficiaries. To ensure the process seeking societal input is legitimate, researchers must be open to all possible outcomes, including the rejection or considerable alteration of solar geoengineering research plans.”
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