Solar radiation management (SRM) is a broad category of geoengineering approaches that would seek to reflect sunlight away from Earth. Geoengineering governance refers to the processes by which decisions about research into and deployment of geoengineering technologies are made. The Open Philanthropy Project has been interested in the idea of geoengineering governance, particularly SRM governance, for some time.
The Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) works to promote the good governance of SRM by building capacity and understanding around SRM, especially in the developing world. SRMGI is neither in favor of nor against SRM research and use. Our impression is that it is a well-connected and well-positioned organization in a sparse space.
Based on these considerations, the Open Philanthropy Project decided to recommend a grant of $500,000 to support SRMGI via the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
1. The cause
In our shallow investigation of this cause, we describe the governance of solar radiation management (SRM) 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 deployment of it 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.
At the time we made this grant, geoengineering generally and SRM governance specifically were causes which we were prioritizing relatively highly within our global catastrophic risks program. From our March 2015 update on the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on global catastrophic risks:
We believe geoengineering research and governance is a promising philanthropic space. Because it is a relatively thin space (not many researchers or organizations currently devoted to it), a specialized hire in this area may need to very actively field-build and generate interest from potential grantees who are not currently seeking (additional) funding to work on geoengineering; we remain uncertain of how wise or efficient such a strategy would be at this time. We might make a specialized hire if we found an outstanding fit, but might also simply continue to monitor the space and capitalize on giving opportunities that arise.
It was with essentially this mindset that we made this grant to SRMGI. More recently, we have decided to focus our work on global catastrophic risks primarily on biosecurity and potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence. See our September 2015 update for more details.
2. Background on SRMGI
The Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) was launched in March 2010 by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Royal Society, and the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). The work of SRMGI is overseen by Steven Hamburg (EDF), John Shepherd (The Royal Society) and Qasim Jan (TWAS). The project director (part-time) is Andy Parker, a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany. SRMGI aims to promote global conversation about SRM and governance of research, particularly by bringing in perspectives from stakeholders in developing countries. SRMGI is neither in favor of, nor against, SRM geoengineering and related research.
The majority of SRMGI’s previous funding has come from the Royal Society and the Environmental Defense Fund. SRMGI has also received funding from Zennström Philanthropies, the Carbon War Room, and the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (FICER, funded by Bill Gates). SRMGI also ran a series of workshops in Africa in partnership with the African Academy of Sciences, which was funded by a grant from the Inter-Academy Panel (IAP) and supported financially and logistically by UNESCO.
3. Case for the grant
Our impression is that, globally, there is currently little work focused on improving the governance of SRM. We consider this grant to be an opportunity to build up a sparse field. Our impression that SRMGI is well-connected in the field, has a neutral stance regarding what sorts of SRM research ought to be done, and acts as a facilitator of conversation, leads us to believe it is well-suited to helping us better understand SRM.
We are inclined to agree with SRMGI’s case for increasing the engagement of experts in the developing world with SRM governance issues, based on the arguments that people in developing countries will be most affected by environmental change, that SRM governance must include the perspectives of people in developing countries, and that this inclusion must happen earlier rather than later in the research and governance process. SRMGI appears to be well placed to fill this niche. In conversations, we have found Andy to be very thoughtful about the potential benefits and risks of various strategies for improving SRM governance.
3.1 Room for more funding
Our conversations with SRMGI indicate that it currently has very limited available funds and that past funders are not expected to renew funding for a variety of reasons. We believe that this grant would allow SRMGI to significantly expand its activities, and that it is unlikely to receive this level of funding from any other source.
3.2 Risks to the success of the grant
Our guess at the value of resources directed toward SRM governance is necessarily very imprecise. The case for this grant assumes that improving SRM governance overall is valuable, and that SRMGI’s efforts will contribute to improving SRM governance. Either or both of these assumptions may be faulty. For example:
- Focusing on improving SRM governance at this stage may build support for SRM disproportionately to its merits, making it more likely the technology is developed and used regardless of how beneficial it is.
- Bringing the perspective of developing world experts or leaders into the conversation about SRM governance may not improve the quality of any governance that is eventually developed.
- The time and resources of developing world scientists and policymakers may be better spent on other issues.
- It is possible that efforts to govern SRM technology may result in excessively prohibitive restrictions on research, or restrictions based on political or popular perceptions rather than the risks and merits of the research.
- It is also possible that engaging developing world experts on issues of SRM governance is valuable, but that SRMGI’s approach may not achieve this goal, or that SRMGI may not effectively carry out its chosen strategy.
In addition, we are aware that both geoengineering broadly and SRM specifically are controversial topics. We see some risk that any involvement with these fields may cause reputational damage to the Open Philanthropy Project, even in cases (such as this grant) where we do not intend to show support for the underlying technology. This risk is not specific to this grant.
While we recognized the risks above, we did not feel that any of them were significant enough to give reason not to go ahead with this grant.
4. Grant details
The Open Philanthropy Project granted $500,000 to the SRMGI project over two years. We do not necessarily expect SRMGI to spend the granted amount within two years.
4.1 Proposed use of funds
SRMGI proposes to use a $500,000 grant as follows:
- $230,000: Support staff from the Environmental Defense Fund, TWAS, and/or the Royal Society, including consultants.
- $145,000: Hold seven meetings in six different regions of the world (the Caribbean, Pacific Islands, South East Asia, South America, South Asia (two meetings), and the Middle East and North Africa.)
- $90,000: Fund follow-ups to regional meetings, perhaps including the support of the Pan-African Working Group, and/or a Global Forum Meeting, and/or an annual alumni summer school.
- $35,000: Outreach, including at UN negotiations, publishing regular articles and reports, and a revamped website.
4.2 Follow up expectations
Our expectations for this grant are that:
- SRMGI will use this grant to organize reasonably well-attended regional meetings.
- These meetings will provide attendees with an introduction to SRM and lead some attendees to increase their engagement with SRM issues, to attend further events, and to maintain contact with one another.
We hope, though we do not necessarily expect, that regional meeting attendees spread knowledge of SRM governance issues to local colleagues, generate local discussion, and more generally build capacity for and understanding of SRM research and governance in the developing world.
The extent to which we follow up on this grant will depend on how much capacity we have to devote to causes outside our top priorities within global catastrophic risks. In following this grant, we would hope to learn more about the field of SRM governance and about how developing world engagement affects governance.
5. Our process
We came across SRMGI while investigating SRM governance as a cause, as part of our research into geoengineering more broadly. The Open Philanthropy Project spoke with Andy Parker several times, and with a number of other geoengineering scholars, both to learn about the cause as a whole, and to learn more about SRMGI as an organization. Public notes are available from several of these conversations: