The Time for Geoengineering Field Tests is Now

If the climate is more sensitive to GHG emissions than consensus estimates suggest, carbon pricing and other measures designed to nudge consumers and firms into reducing emissions aren’t likely to make much of a difference. That is why David G. Victor, M. Granger Morgan, Jay Apt, John Steinbruner, Katharine Ricke call for small-scale field tests of solar radiation management (SRM) technologies that could change the planet’s energy balance quite quickly: 

The usual proposals involve spraying material into the stratosphere, where it would turn into reflective clouds, or blowing seawater into the air, with a similar effect. The clouds could deflect just enough incoming sunlight to offset, crudely, the number of degrees human emissions have warmed the planet. Flying a fleet of high-altitude aircraft that spray particles into the upper atmosphere would cost perhaps ten billion dollars per year — a pittance for a country that is suffering from severe climate change and seeks a quick solution.

Most carbon dioxide removal schemes appear relatively safe, although tinkering with a fragile ecosystem by fertilizing the ocean does involve risks. In contrast, SRM raises serious political and policy questions. Although quick and cheap, messing with the complex and imperfectly understood climate system, which is already stressed by warming gases, could end badly. Severe side effects might, for example, include a shift in the seasonal monsoons that many countries rely on for rainfall and agriculture, or accelerate the destruction of the ozone layer. No one knows whether it would be possible to predict and offset all such harmful side effects or how much it might cost. 

Because our understanding of how SRM technologies would work in practice is very limited, there is a great deal of reluctance to make substantial investments in such Plan B measures. And so it’s time to start with tests that are small enough not to have durable impacts on the climate system. With any luck we’ll hit upon an affordable “insurance policy” to guard against sudden, catastrophic climate change. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More