Published: April 2017
Solar Geoengineering Research Program staff reviewed this page prior to publication.
The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $2,500,000 over five years to Harvard University to support the founding of the Solar Geoengineering Research Program (SGRP) as part of the Harvard University Center for the Environment. This program will be a coordinated research effort focusing on solar geoengineering research, governance, and advocacy led by Professor David Keith and Dr. Gernot Wagner (formerly the Environmental Defense Fund’s lead senior economist). Other founding funders include Bill Gates, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Plans for the grant include: researching ways to improve our understanding, reduce the risks, and increase the benefits of geoengineering; developing solar geoengineering technology; increasing transparency in solar geoengineering research; engaging with policy makers and the broader public; and creating a broad blueprint for solar geoengineering research going forward.
This grant falls within our work on global catastrophic risks.
In our shallow investigation into governance of solar radiation management, a type of geoengineering also referred to as solar geoengineering, we describe this cause as follows:
Solar radiation management is a type of geoengineering that aims to cool the earth by reflecting sunlight away from it. As a category, solar radiation management appears to be both riskier and closer to being ready for use than other types of geoengineering. However, there are currently no specific systems in place to govern research into solar radiation management, or its deployment at any scale. Whether or not solar radiation management turns out to be safe and beneficial, improved governance would make it more likely that decisions about research and deployment of the technology are made wisely and in the interests of humanity as a whole.
About the grant
Budget and proposed activities
SGRP’s budget accounts for the following expense categories:
- An executive director’s salary.
- Creation of a comprehensive blueprint for the steps needed for the safe research, regulation, deployment, and monitoring of solar geoengineering. This will include hiring technical writers, advisors, and critical reviewers to create the document, as well as someone to direct their work.
- Outreach and convening, including building a website, covering travel and other associated costs for convenings and events, and running a semi-regular solar geoengineering residency for young researchers to deepen their knowledge of solar geoengineering and collaborate with Harvard researchers.
- Advancing science and technology. This may include:
- Creating high-quality 3D models to estimate the effect of solar geoengineering on the ozone layer.
- Laboratory work assessing the properties of particles such as calcium carbonate and their suitability for use in solar geoengineering.
- Developing instruments for flight experiments. SGRP has a prototype for an instrument to measure hydrogen chloride (which depletes ozone), but will need approximately an additional $500,000 to develop an instrument that is reliable and usable in the stratosphere.
- Assessing efficacy and risks. This may include:
- Studying how past volcanic eruptions that released particles into the stratosphere affected ice sheets, in order to help estimate the effect that solar geoengineering would be likely to have on slowing the melting of ice sheets.
- Studying the expected effects of solar geoengineering on sea level rise, air quality, and tropospheric ozone.
- Governance and social implications. This may include:
- Studies on risk compensation related to solar geoengineering among populations in the US, Germany, and India. Specifically, these studies would focus on determining whether learning about solar geoengineering makes people more or less willing to pay to reduce carbon emissions, and/or to reduce emissions personally.
- Hiring people to write and publish these and other studies, including a postdoctoral researcher in economics.
- Harvard-wide faculty grants, to be made by the faculty committee through the Harvard University Center for the Environment for projects related to solar geoengineering. These grants may fund the work of people who are skeptical of geoengineering and/or miscellaneous projects in related areas. This is expected to be a useful way to elicit criticism of geoengineering and unconventional ideas for how to implement it.
Case for the grant
We see this grant as a good opportunity to build and advance the field of solar geoengineering, especially given SGRP’s emphasis on cooperation and collaboration between researchers and on developing solar geoengineering technology in the manner that is most likely to affect the world positively. Within the field of geoengineering, we consider Professor Keith to be a top scientist who is relatively aligned with us in terms of being pragmatic, cognizant of tradeoffs, and focused on global rather than national interests. It seems to us that earlier and more research on solar geoengineering will make it more likely that the global community will have an in-depth understanding of technological options and risks in the event that climate engineering is seriously considered as an approach to reducing harms from climate change at some point in the future.
Risks and reservations
We have several reservations about making this grant:
- Specific to this grant:
- It seems plausible that funding will not ultimately be a limiting factor for SGRP, in which case our grant could end up having no impact.
- This project may be initiated too early to remove a counterfactual bottleneck on sound decision-making about solar geoengineering, i.e. without it, or with it happening later, future results related to solar geoengineering would be approximately as good.
- Applicable to geoengineering grants in general:
- Some experts worry that the capacity for geoengineering will introduce geopolitical instability due to disagreement over questions such as whether and to what extent to deploy geoengineering. We do not have a strong sense of the likelihood of conflicts arising over this issue. We think one way to reduce such risks is to support work on governance implications of geoengineering, which this grant includes and which we have also supported with previous grants here and here).
- It is possible that this grant will increase the chance that geoengineering technology is deployed, and thus possibly deployed in a harmful way (either due to unintended consequences of use, or deliberate misuse).
- It is possible that perceived progress in geoengineering will reduce the amount of effort put into reducing greenhouse gas emissions or taking safer measures to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, it has also been suggested that raising the possibility of using geoengineering may cause people to take other mitigation efforts more seriously. (To be clear, we generally think mitigation efforts should be taken more seriously than they are.)
We are experimenting with recording explicit numerical forecasts of the probability of events related to our decision-making (especially grant-making). The idea behind this is to pull out the implicit predictions that are playing a role in our decisions, and to make it possible for us to look back on how well-calibrated and accurate those predictions were. For this grant, we are recording the following public forecast:
- 80% chance that we will consider this grant a success in 10 years.
Claire Zabel, a Research Analyst for the Open Philanthropy Project, spoke and exchanged emails with Professor Keith and Dr. Wagner.
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