The growing enmity between the United States and Russia resulting from the war in Ukraine may mask a fundamental and enduring step in climate science: one of the most important pieces of evidence supporting a major shared security problem – the anthropogenic climate change – was the result of United States, French and Russian Cooperations. Ice cores drilled at Russia’s Vostok Antarctic Station have provided some of the strongest evidence linking human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to rising atmospheric temperatures –over two decades ago.
Indeed, although the “climate emergency” heralded by these ice cores is increasingly present in our lives and in our world, neither it nor its broad implications are new. Recent chilling reports of an impending mass marine extinction and the increasing frequency of climate-induced disasters add to a growing mountain of stories about record temperatures and extreme weather dating back to the last century.
The difference now is that time is running out to take positive action and avert climate-induced environmental calamities. While economies are slowly moving forward on decarbonization (or even reversing it), Earth remains on an accelerated trajectory toward potentially irreparable planetary damage, the consequences of which are already materializing.
Therefore, policy makers and scientists can ill afford not to consider everything possible options for managing climate risk, even those that have long been avoided by diplomats and climate policymakers. However, this will require significantly improving knowledge and governance of one of these potential and promising strategies: sunlight reflection.
Current strategies and their limits
Countries currently have three approaches to managing climate risk: emission reductions, carbon dioxide removal (CDR), and adaptation. But Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, offers a fourth option in a new report: “Reflecting Sunlight to Reduce Climate Risk.”
Patrick writes that “the ultimate solution to the climate emergency is a combination of deep decarbonization” and removal of atmospheric GHGs. Unfortunately, however, progress on the first strategy has been woefully insufficient. Moreover, even if the savings To do manage to decarbonize, the 419 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in today’s atmosphere means that some degree of warming is already present.
Regarding the latter, both mechanical and natural CDR could help keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, but both approaches will take years to reach the necessary scale. Patrick observes that the restoration of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at pre-industrial levels would require removal of the equivalent of about “thirty cubic miles of solid black carbon – a volume roughly comparable in size to Mount Rainier”.
Patrick describes the resilience and capacity-building efforts involved in adaptation strategies as “essentially palliative measures” that would only help humanity survive climate change without doing anything to avoid it. Moreover, not all climatic effects can be predicted or anticipated. Some “will simply have to be endured”.
The case of sunlight reflection
Given these gaps and challenges, Patrick presents sunlight reflection as a potential fourth strategy for managing climate risk. Sunlight reflection, or solar climate intervention (SCI), is a catch-all term for various techniques of reflecting about one percent of sunlight back into space to counteract its GHG warming effects. Patrick observes that this could offer “a technologically plausible, potentially quick and relatively inexpensive way” to slow global warming.
Far from being a substitute for decarbonization, SCI presents an opportunity to deploy an additional means of climate hazard mitigation as countries strive to stabilize (and reduce) atmospheric concentrations of GHGs. In other words, the reflection of sunlight could be the aspirin the world needs to control its climate fever as humans steadily move towards a cure.
Despite the potential value of SCI as a palliative strategy that “shaves[s] the “peak” of temperature increases and their ramifications, the approach has its detractors. Some critics fear this could trigger moral hazard that could grant polluters a blank check to continue their destructive ways. Others cite its potential unintended consequences, including impacts on delicate systems of the planetary environment. Patrick argues that while these concerns are worth investigating, they must be weighed against the (un)known dangers of climate change.
Unfortunately, such a comparative risk assessment is currently not possible. Governments have even avoided discussing SCIs openly, and their understanding of the impacts, feasibility and risks of solar reflectance remains woefully inadequate.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has acknowledged that, compared to climate hazards, far fewer studies have assessed the consequences of sunlight reflection or its potential to reduce climate risk. To make matters worse, world leaders and researchers even lack a framework to govern sunlight reflection research and eventual deployment and are flying blind in a storm supercharged by increased evaporation and a warmer air.
This gap in ICS knowledge and governance not only robs future generations of a chance to survive the post-carbon transition, but also invites ill-informed decisions, geopolitical mistrust, and dangerously dangerous experimentation and deployment. poorly designed. Promptly addressing ICS information gaps, as well as creating international mechanisms to oversee future research and its potential implementation, could remedy this situation.
Forging a Responsible Path Forward
Given its vast resources and heritage of cooperative research and innovation, the United States is uniquely positioned to initiate increased global scientific and policy inquiry into sunlight reflection. Establishing a strong national, transdisciplinary research program on sunlight reflection, anchored in international collaboration, would be an essential first step in achieving this. Patrick proposes that such a program should also promote informed decision-making among U.S. policymakers and aim to allay fears of U.S. dominance or abrogation of climate commitments.
The United States should also mobilize efforts to establish multilateral governance arrangements that equip nations with high-quality, consensus-based scientific assessments and enable them to collectively assess the desirability of SCI and take decisions regarding its potential deployment. Patrick recommends that, among other policy initiatives, the United States use its presidency of the UN Security Council in May 2022 to present the subject to members of the body and make ICS deliberations a standing item on the agenda. agenda of the annual meetings of the G7 and NATO.
The verdict has been “falling” on the climate crisis for decades. What remains uncertain is whether humanity is ready and willing to do what is asked – and everything needed—to fix it.
Ania Zolyniak is a research associate for the International Institutions and Global Governance program of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sources: Nature; Global Policy Review; Science; The United Nations; The New York Times; Reuters; Council on Foreign Relations; Exploratory; Stanford Social Innovation Review; national academy press; Political regime; C2G; IPCC; Royal Society Publishing; American scientist; White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; AAAS; Tell us.
Photo credit: Image of Earth taken by crew members aboard the International Space Station, courtesy of Flickr user Johnson of NASA.