In a nutshell
What is the problem?
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, we believe 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.
What are possible interventions?
A philanthropist interested in supporting the governance of solar radiation management could fund research into possible approaches to governance, or encourage discussion of and education about this issue among decision-makers and the general public.
Who else is working on it?
Funding for governance initiatives is limited, and comes mostly from government-funded agencies. We believe there is currently little private philanthropy in this area.
1. What is the problem?
1.1 What is solar radiation management?
During our investigation into geoengineering, we repeatedly heard about the lack of governance around the research and deployment of solar radiation management (SRM). SRM is a type of geoengineering which aims to reflect away a small percentage of the sunlight directed towards the earth. It is expected to have a cooling effect on the planet, but may not counteract other effects of high carbon dioxide concentrations (such as ocean acidification).
SRM is one of two main types of geoengineering; the other is carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which aims to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere after it has already been emitted. We have focused on the governance of SRM because our impression is that as a technology it is generally cheaper, riskier, and closer to being ready for deployment.1
Several possible approaches to SRM have been proposed; the two that we have seen discussed most frequently are injecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere and using saltwater spray to brighten clouds.2 Both of these techniques have been brought to researchers’ attention by effects which have already been observed in the physical environment: the idea of injecting aerosols into the stratosphere is based on the cooling effect that follows the release of large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere during volcanic eruptions; the idea of brightening clouds is based on observations of brightened areas of clouds produced by aerosol particles in the exhaust emissions of commercial cargo ships.3 Beyond these observations, the current scientific understanding of SRM comes mostly from modeling studies using climate simulations. Studies of this kind examining aerosols in the stratosphere suggest that it may be possible to create large cooling effects without the need for many (or any) major technological breakthroughs, and at a relatively low cost.4
We note that scientists and policymakers interested in SRM research emphasize that they do not see SRM as a replacement for climate change mitigation (i.e. global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).5Rather, it is generally considered worth developing as part of a suite of possible responses to climate change, or as a tool to be used only in the event of particularly dangerous or severe climate change.6
1.2 What is SRM governance?
‘Governance’ in this context refers both to ‘hard’ governance, such as government regulations or international treaties, and ‘soft’ governance, such as codes of conduct or community norms. We believe it could be beneficial to support the development of governance mechanisms relating both to scientific research into SRM, and to possible deployment of SRM. (In the footnote, we describe two cases of potentially risky technologies which were subject to specific governance arrangements while under development, which could provide a precedent for governance arrangements around SRM research.)7
In this shallow investigation, we focus on governance of research, mostly due to our impression that this is likely to be relevant on a shorter time frame than governance of deployment. Possible approaches to the governance of SRM research could include researcher-driven codes of conduct, national regulations, or international treaties.
1.3 Why is SRM governance important?
Deployment of SRM may be risky and its potential effects are poorly understood; if deployed, it might help reduce the harmful effects of climate change, but would likely have global effects which might be difficult to reverse; it also appears that it would be low-cost and relatively straightforward to deploy.8
Taken together, we find these to be strong reasons to support some form of governance in order to ensure, firstly, that research into SRM is well-directed and safe; and secondly, that if the technology is ever ready to be deployed, decisions about its use are made in the interests of the global community.
We find that thinking in terms of possible worst-case scenarios clarifies why one could believe that improved governance of SRM could be important, without necessarily supporting the development or use of the technology itself. Roughly, we see four possible scenarios in which handling SRM poorly could cause bad outcomes:
- If SRM is not used when it should have been, or too little SRM is used, or it is used too late (i.e. if extreme climate change occurs, and SRM could have safely reduced its effects but is not deployed);
- If SRM is used when it should not have been, or too much is used, or it is used too soon (i.e. if someone capable of deploying SRM decides to do so, but it has large negative side effects, or if an experiment which is carried out causes damage in some way);
- If SRM is successfully deployed, but its use is abruptly terminated in a way that causes harm (i.e. if SRM is being used to counteract the warming effects of high greenhouse gas levels, then if SRM suddenly stopped being used, the earth could potentially experience large, rapid rises in temperature);9
- If disagreements about SRM lead to conflict (we find this especially plausible if the benefits and harms of deployment would be unevenly spread, and one state or group were planning to act unilaterally).
It is difficult to estimate how bad each of these four scenarios could be. Taking them in order:
- Our page on extreme risks from climate change puts the chance of climate change having much worse effects than expected (greater than 6.4ºC warming by 2100) at around 10%, but we are highly uncertain about what this would mean for human welfare.
- According to researchers, SRM might have unintended effects on many features of the global climate, including precipitation, atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns, and ozone levels.10 We have not seen any research attempting to describe these changes in terms of humanitarian effects, but our understanding is that they could potentially be destructive.
- We have heard from several people that the possible negative effects of ceasing to deploy SRM after it has been in use for some time represent a major unknown, and could be severe. In particular, the possibility of rapid warming resulting from SRM ‘termination’ is seen as potentially much more dangerous than more gradual warming due to gradual greenhouse gas accumulation. 11
- Likewise, although it is difficult to predict the results of a hypothetical conflict over SRM, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that the humanitarian costs could be very large, especially if one or more major powers were involved.
We believe that these possible scenarios illustrate how improved governance of SRM could be important, even if it turns out that the technology is dangerous and should not be used. In each of the scenarios, robust governance arrangements that are specifically designed for the case of SRM would presumably make it more likely that good decisions are made about what research is done, and about how and whether to use SRM. If research is governed well, it will be less likely that dangerous experiments are carried out or that research gets halted prematurely; a well-functioning governance system for deployment would make it more likely that SRM deployment could be prevented if it would be dangerous, and supported if it would be beneficial, without resorting to armed conflict.
The strongest consideration we have found against supporting the field (even if only indirectly, via supporting governance initiatives) is the possibility that it could lead to a ‘slippery slope’ towards deployment, sometimes called ‘technological lock-in’. The idea is that as research continues, it will gather momentum as well as funders and supporters whose influence will grow with the field.12 However, we feel that this risk is outweighed by the considerations outlined above.
2. What are possible interventions?
Governance of SRM research is being actively discussed by climate change and geoengineering scientists, as well as policymakers. There have been repeated calls for the formation of some kind of governance strategy for SRM research; some common themes have surfaced, including points of agreement and questions for further deliberation. More detail in the footnote.13
We see several avenues that a philanthropist interested in supporting the governance of SRM research could pursue. These include:
- Funding research into the governance of scientific fields in general, or of SRM research in particular. Research of this kind could include investigating precedent cases (i.e. other scientific fields which have been subject to field-specific governance), or developing proposals for the case of SRM research.
- Supporting efforts to move towards the formation of some kind of governance agreement or roadmap. This could take the form of:
- Supporting convenings or conferences for the relevant decision-makers; this could be some combination of SRM scientists, scientific policy experts, government officials, environmentalists, and others.
- Outreach or education campaigns to increase public understanding and awareness of SRM and the issues surrounding it.
- Advocacy in support of a particular approach to governance; this could be directed towards governments, scientists, international bodies, or funders, for example.
At this point we have not put significant time into considering how to promote the governance of SRM deployment, although we believe that approaches similar to those listed above could be adapted for the development of governance systems for deployment. We also find it plausible that the systems developed to govern research will have significant influence on how deployment is eventually governed.14
3. Who else is working on this?
Below we list some agencies and funders we have identified as contributing funding to projects relating to SRM governance. During our 2013 investigation of geoengineering, we compiled a spreadsheet of solar geoengineering projects and their funding sources. Two of these projects are explicitly focused on governance, and we identified several others which relate at least partially to governance; funders of these projects appear below.15 We also list below the funders of the four geoengineering reports which have informed this investigation.16 Each report includes significant coverage of SRM governance issues.
Funders of projects listed in our spreadsheet of geoengineering projects with at least some governance component:
- National Science Foundation (NSF)
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
- UK Natural Environment Research Council
- UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
- UK Economic and Social Research Council
- UK Arts and Humanities Research Council
- German Research Foundation (DFG)
- German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)
- Brandenburg Ministry for Science, Research and the Arts
- Academy of Finland’s Research Program on Climate Change (FICCA)
- EU Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7)
- Bill Gates
Organizations which have funded reports on SRM:
- The Royal Society
- Bipartisan Policy Center
- Environmental Defense Fund
- The World Academy of Sciences
- The Carbon War Room
- Zennström Philanthropies
- Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (FICER)
- Bipartisan Policy Center
- National Academy of Sciences
- US Department of Energy
Our impression, which is borne out by this list, is that most current funding for SRM governance comes from government agencies or government-funded bodies, while private philanthropy in this area is very limited.17 We would guess that total funding directed towards SRM governance is currently less than $10 million per year. When we investigated geoengineering in 2013, we identified approximately $11 million per year of funding for geoengineering projects which explicitly included a solar geoengineering (SRM) component.18 However, these projects do not necessarily relate to governance, and we believe only a fraction of that funding was directed towards SRM governance.19
We have not searched extensively for new SRM governance projects that could have received funding since 2013, although we tentatively believe that we would have heard about large new projects in the course of our conversations with experts in the field (more on our process below). In addition, our spreadsheet of projects does not account for research that is supported by general institutional resources (such as unrestricted funding to a university, graduate students’ stipends, or computing resources). We would plan to make further inquiries about new projects before committing significant resources to the field.
4. Questions for further investigation
Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation. If we were to do further research in this area, we might attempt to answer questions such as:
- How has the development of other potentially dangerous technologies been governed?
- How can a philanthropist contribute to the development of governance mechanisms for geoengineering?
- Does public discussion of SRM either increase or decrease climate change mitigation efforts?
- How likely is it that one state would decide to deploy SRM unilaterally?
5. Our process
We were initially introduced to SRM governance as an issue during our investigations of climate change and geoengineering. During those investigations, and as part of this targeted investigation of SRM governance, we have spoken to experts on climate change, geoengineering and SRM governance. The following conversations contained at least some discussion of SRM governance and contributed to our understanding of the topic:
- Michael MacCracken on May 18, 2012
- Philip Rasch on May 22, 2012
- Jane C.S. Long on June 1, 2012
- Klaus Keller on April 18, 2013
- Elmar Kriegler on April 18, 2013
- Andy Parker on May 20, 2013
- Clive Hamilton on December 16, 2013
- Bentley Allan on March 25, 2014
We had several follow-up conversations with Andy Parker of SRMGI. We also read several papers by SRM scientists which were recommended to us during these conversations, as well as four major reports on geoengineering: by the Royal Society20, the Bipartisan Policy Center21, the SRM Governance Initiative (SRMGI)22, and the National Research Council23. Each provides a broad overview of the field of SRM governance at the time of publication.
|Bipartisan Policy Center 2011||Source (archive)|
|FICER website 2015||Source (archive)|
|GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Jane C.S. Long, June 1, 2012||Source|
|Morgan, Nordhaus and Gottlieb 2013||Source (archive)|
|National Research Council 2015||Source (archive)|
|Parson and Keith 2013||Source (archive)|
|Robock 2008||Source (archive)|
|Royal Society 2009||Source (archive)|
|Schäfer et al. 2013||Source (archive)|
|SRMGI 2011||Source (archive)|