We can’t afford to stop solar geoengineering research

Intense social pressure to cease solar geoengineering research won’t mean that all such research will end—it means that researchers who care about openness and transparency might stop their activities, and the ones who continue might be less responsive to public concerns. They will be supported by funders that don’t care about public opinion—perhaps private actors or militaries—and we might not hear about all the findings. Autocratic regimes would be able to take the lead; we might have to rely on their expertise in the future if we’re not successful in phasing out fossil fuels. And scientists in developing countries—already disadvantaged in terms of participating in this research—may be even less able to do so if international institutions and philanthropies are not providing funds.  

Solar geoengineering research needs public funding through national science agencies. This can help ensure several important things. It can maintain public oversight of the research and enable the design of research programs where social scientists and governance scholars are integrated from the outset, producing the critical type of interdisciplinary research this topic demands. What’s more, public funding can be designed to encourage international scientific cooperation. For example, a paper presented at AGU that looked at the impacts of solar geoengineering on crop yields included researchers from Norway, the US, South Korea, and China. We want to continue this kind of cooperation, not stifle it. 

Perhaps most important, national funding agencies can structure research programs to examine the potential risks and benefits in a comprehensive way, making sure to give full attention to everything that could go wrong. Without this systematic approach, what gets published may be a trickle of studies showcasing only the most stellar results, making solar geoengineering look better than it is. Is that study about crop yields good? What does it miss? To find out the answers, we need more studies, not fewer, and we need bodies like the IPCC to assess them all together. 

No scientist is happy about the prospect of solar geoengineering. But we are going to need a pipeline of thoughtful, experienced people who understand both the science and the governance issues. If we disincentivize people from developing that expertise, we may not like the results. 

Good science takes years to develop. If we put off research until the 2030s, we could find ourselves in a world that’s made some uneven progress on the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions but not enough, with temperatures still headed toward 3 °C of warming. We can’t then suddenly hope to produce rigorous science that would help us understand whether solar geoengineering is advisable. For a start, the US should follow the well-thought-out recommendations set up by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that recently grappled with this, and fund a modest, careful research program now. 

Holly Jean Buck is an assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University at Buffalo and the author of Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough

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