Originally published in the report of the Forum on U.S. Solar Geoengineering Research, 24 March 2017, Washington, DC [PDF]
Policy may largely be an outcome of politics, but as economist Robin Hanson asserts, politics is (usually) not about policy. This is particularly true for solar geoengineering, which elicits strong feelings and runs counter to typical relations between means and ends in environmental policy. Here, I offer my perceptions of solar geoengineering’s inchoate politics, and a forecast of how they might unfold as research is advanced. Such forecasting, always uncertain, is even more so as the US enters uncharted political terrain.
Speaking with gross generalization, I observe three primary cohorts in solar geoengineering politics. First, research advocates have, almost exclusively, a history of studying anthropogenic climate change and of calling for aggressive greenhouse gas emissions cuts (“mitigation”). However, they are pessimistic about the prospects for mitigation alone to prevent dangerous climate change. This cohort is dominated by scientists and, to a lesser degree, a few moderate environmental groups. They reluctantly argue that solar geoengineering appears to offer a feasible and effective means to counter climate change and, in turn, to protect vulnerable people and ecosystems. Second, research opponents advance a variety of arguments, the most common of which is that solar geoengineering research would undermine already insufficient mitigation efforts. They also often highlight physical risks and uncertainties, questions of control and potential conflict, matters of justice, and the hubris of messing with nature. Some opponents accuse the research advocates of unwittingly–or even consciously–aiding the vested interests that benefit from fossil fuels’ continued use. Third, less noticeable are the conservative opponents of mitigation who have largely remained on the sideline of solar geoengineering debates. Occasionally a right-of-center voice suggests that solar geoengineering offers a simple solution, while a climate change denier mocks it as another unnecessary response to a nonexistent problem. Meanwhile, the lay public remains mostly ignorant and, if asked, exhibits a wide range of responses to solar geoengineering.
Initially, I was a research opponent when I encountered solar geoengineering. The assertions that it is simply a risky effort by fossil fuel interests to avoid mitigation both seemed logical and confirmed by preexisting views. Yet the closer I looked, the more I saw that solar geoengineering was driven by despondent environmentalists; that realistic mitigation scenarios could no longer keep global warming within the internationally agreed-upon 2℃ limit; that climate models consistently indicated that solar geoengineering could effectively reduce climate change; and that the ability to implement it could serve as a type of insurance against future climate risks. Notably, many other research advocates followed a similar path.
To some degree, the climate change discourse has likewise evolved with respect to solar geoengineering. As actual mitigation continues to disappoint and as the forecasts for climate change become more dire, calls for research have been more common, as seen in the 2015 US National Academies reports and the recent update to the National Global Change Research Plan. Although this evolution may be a source of strange encouragement among research advocates, many of them are understandably cautious. Our greatest fear is that conservatives will pivot, suddenly embracing the proposed techniques. If this were to happen, then solar geoengineering would be widely perceived–rightly or wrongly–as a means to perpetuate our unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels.
I believe that this concern may be somewhat misplaced. Seeing why requires differentiation within two of the broad political cohorts. First, although conservative opponents of mitigation are often lumped together and smeared as “denialists,” they actually profess a range of views. The more extreme ones indeed deny that the climate is changing or that humans are the primary cause thereof. They are unlikely to embrace solar geoengineering, as doing so would require them to alter their foundational beliefs. Instead, they will continue to dismiss it–if they discuss it at all–as grandiose nonsense from power-hungry scientists. However, a substantial portion of opponents of aggressive mitigation do acknowledge anthropogenic climate change but argue that its impacts will be moderate and that mitigation would be too expensive. In fact, some of these “lukewarmers” emphasize that the world’s poor would be served better by reliable access to affordable energy. To them, solar geoengineering could offer a means to reduce the real but–in their opinion–moderate risks of climate change without hindering development. Although research advocates may bristle at the prospect, given their dedication to mitigation, they may need to choose whether to cooperate with those who have seriously considered climate change and, in apparent good faith, come to different conclusions regarding aggressive mitigation.
Turning now the other direction, research opponents’ heterogeneity can be gleaned from considering the means and ends of climate change policy. Some research opponents, particularly advocates of “deeper green” environmentalism and social justice, have more ambitious goals than simply preventing climate change. As evidenced by their rhetoric and actions, they variously aim to reduce the human footprint on nature and to redistribute power and wealth in a more egalitarian way. Because mitigation might further these more ambitious goals, their support for it has always been a means to an end. And because solar geoengineering would not necessarily further these goals–and possibly threaten the prioritization of mitigation in climate policy–their opposition to solar geoengineering will remain fast. Yet there is another segment of research opponents: those who have been calling for mitigation for years, often under hostile political conditions. For them, mitigation has been the sole means to a critical end for so long that it appears to have become the end itself. They are now reflexively defensive to suggestions of any alternative. Solar geoengineering disrupts this, just as proposals to adapt society to a changed climate did two decades ago. For example, Al Gore initially called adaptation “a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skin.” It took years before he and others supported adaptation, which now stands alongside mitigation as an equally essential response to climate change risks. Many of these defensive opponents may warm up to solar geoengineering, especially if we research advocates engage with them seriously and proceed cautiously. But if we fail to do so, then they may harden their position. To me, this is the real risk of advancing solar geoengineering research.