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On Friday, the White House released a report on federally mandated solar geoengineering, an umbrella term that describes methods for bouncing sunlight away from Earth to cool the atmosphere.
A senior administration official said the Biden-Harris administration has no plans to launch a comprehensive research program on solar radiation regulation.
But the report also says there is good logic in developing a cohesive research agenda on the topic.
“These unknowns, along with the evolving understanding of complex Earth systems, provide a compelling case for research to better understand potential benefits and risks,” the report said.
The report, from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is intended to fulfill a congressional mandate contained in the Omnibus Appropriations Act passed in 2022, which requires the White House to develop a “research governance framework to provide guidance on transparency, engagement, and more.” “. , and Risk Management for Publicly Funded Solar Geoengineering Research Efforts. “
For decades, solar radiation modification has been relegated to the realm of science fiction. But as the effects of climate change become more visible and dangerous, some argue that climate intervention may be less dangerous than the global warming that would have occurred without intervention.
Heat is an adversary worth relieving — It’s often called the “silent killer” – But solar radiation management cannot address other impacts of climate change, such as ocean acidification or air pollution.
The White House report focuses on two approaches to solar geoengineering.
Stratospheric Aerosol Injection Particles of sulfur dioxide or other substances are being released into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from Earth. marine cloud brightening Designed to increase the albedo of certain clouds, either by infusing them with sea salt or otherwise.
Federal science agencies have begun piecemeal studies of solar radiation alterations, and research on topics such as volcanic activity and cloud-aerosol interactions can provide useful groundwork.
Volcanic eruptions and massive wildfire smoke provide natural analogs for engineered stratospheric aerosol injection. Ship trails are clouds that form around ship exhaust, supporting the theory of ocean cloud brightening.
But research on solar radiation management is limited and uncoordinated, leaving a huge gap. Developing a research program will help prepare the United States for deployment of solar radiation regulation by other government or private agencies.
This diagram shows the various forms solar geoengineering can take. Courtesy of Chelsea Thompson, NOAA/CIRES.
Chelsea Thompson, NOAA/CIRES
The advantage of solar radiation management is speed. “SRM offers the possibility of significantly reducing Earth’s temperature over a period of several years,” the report said.
But it also carries many unknown risks — what the White House report calls “known unknowns.”
For example, stratospheric aerosol injection could accelerate ozone depletion and reduce biodiversity. Other known unknowns include potential changes in precipitation patterns, sea level rise, terrestrial vegetation, coral reefs, crop production and other ecosystem changes. It can also harm human health by increasing particulate matter, for example.
Against this backdrop, the White House report calls for a “‘Risks and Risks’ framework” for research on solar geoengineering to quantify the specific risks involved with deploying and not deploying solar geoengineering.
For example, allowing warming to continue without solar radiation management could lead to more deaths from extreme heat, but this must be compared with the health risks posed by more particulate matter in the air.
Crucially, altering solar radiation is not a permanent solution. The only real solution to mitigate the effects of climate change is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The White House report says the research agenda for solar radiation regulation will be next to “fundamental elements of greenhouse gas emission mitigation and adaptation.”
Also on Wednesday, the European Union formally discussed solar geoengineering, saying it is not a climate solution and that the interventions are not known enough to deploy them.
Like the US, the EU has said solar geoengineering is not a climate solution, saying the current level of understanding of the impacts of such interventions is insufficient to deploy them.
“In the current state of development, deliberate interventions in Earth’s natural systems, such as the deployment of solar radiation modification (SRM), pose unacceptable risks to humans and the environment,” In a document published on Wednesday, the European Commission said.
However, the EU also said it would support an international collective study on the topic.