The move, which has not been previously reported, marks the first federally coordinated U.S. effort of its kind. It could set the stage for more funding and research into the feasibility, benefits, and risks of such interventions. The effort may also contribute to the perception that geoengineering is an appropriate and important area of research in the face of rising global temperatures.
Solar geoengineering encompasses a number of different approaches. The one that has garnered the most attention is the use of airplanes or balloons to disperse tiny particles in the stratosphere. These would then – in theory – reflect enough sunlight back to mitigate the warming, mimicking the effect of massive volcanic eruptions in the past. Some research groups have also looked at whether releasing certain particles could break up cirrus clouds that trap heat on Earth, or make low-lying ocean clouds more reflective.
The federal appropriations bill of 2022, signed by President Biden in March, directs his Office of Science and Technology Policy to work with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to establish an interagency group to coordinate research on such climate interventions. , and the Department of Energy.
The measure calls on the group to create a research framework to “provide guidance on transparency, engagement and risk management for publicly funded work in solar geoengineering research.” Specifically, it directs NOAA to assist the Office of Science and Technology Policy in developing a five-year plan that, among other things, defines research goals for the area, assesses the potential hazards of such climate interventions, and evaluates the federal government level investments needed to carry them out work are required.
Geoengineering has long been a taboo subject among scientists, and some argue it should remain so. There are questions about possible environmental side effects and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly in different parts of the world. It’s not clear how the world will grapple with thorny global governance issues, including who should make decisions about whether to use such powerful tools, and what global average temperatures we should aim for. Some consider geoengineering too dangerous to ever attempt or even study, arguing that simply talking about the possibility could make the need to address the underlying causes of climate change seem less urgent.
But as the threat of climate change mounts and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, more researchers, universities and nations are seriously examining the potential impact of these approaches. A handful of prominent scientific groups, in turn, are calling for stricter standards to guide this work, more money for it, or both. These include the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which last year recommended establishing a US solar geoengineering research program with an initial investment of $100 million to $200 million over five years.
While proponents of geoengineering research stress that reducing emissions must remain the top priority, they say we should explore these options because they can meaningfully reduce the dangers of climate change. They note that with the increase in heatwaves, droughts, famines, wildfires, and other extreme events, these types of climate interventions may be among the few tools available to quickly alleviate widespread human suffering or ecological disasters.
The Office for Science and Technology Policy confirmed in a statement that it had set up an interdepartmental working group, as required by the Federal Funding Act. It includes representatives from 10 research and mission agencies, including NOAA, NASA and the Department of Energy.