Intense social pressure to shut down solar geoengineering research doesn’t mean all of that research will end — it means researchers who value openness and transparency may shut down their activities, and those who carry on may be less responsive to public concerns . They are backed by funders who don’t care about public opinion – perhaps private actors or the military – and we may not hear about all the results. Autocratic regimes could take the lead; we may have to rely on their expertise in the future if we fail to phase out fossil fuels. And scientists in developing countries – who are already disadvantaged in terms of participating in this research – may be even less able to do so without funding from international institutions and philanthropists.
Solar geoengineering research requires public funding through national science agencies. This can help ensure several important things. It can maintain public oversight of research and enable the design of research programs that integrate social scientists and governance scientists from the outset, creating the critical type of interdisciplinary research that this topic demands. In addition, public funding can be designed in such a way that it promotes international scientific cooperation. For example, researchers from Norway, the US, South Korea and China were involved in a paper presented at AGU that looked at the effects of solar geoengineering on crop yields. We want to continue this type of cooperation, not stall it.
Perhaps most importantly, national funding agencies can structure research programs to fully examine the potential risks and benefits, ensuring that anything that could go wrong receives full attention. Without this systematic approach, what is published could be a trickle of studies presenting only the most salient results, making solar geoengineering look better than it is. Is this crop yield study good? What is it missing? To find out the answers, we need more studies, not less, and we need bodies like the IPCC to assess them all together.
No scientist is happy about the prospect of solar geoengineering. But we will need a pipeline of thoughtful, experienced people who understand both the science and governance issues. If we stop people from developing this expertise, the results may not like us.
Good science takes years to develop. If we push research into the 2030s, we could find ourselves in a world that has made some uneven progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but not enough, with temperatures still heading for 3°C warming. We cannot then suddenly hope to produce rigorous science that would help us understand whether solar geoengineering is advisable. First of all, the US should follow the well-thought-out recommendations of the Committee of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which recently considered this, and now fund a modest, careful research program.
Holly Jean Buck is an Assistant Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University at Buffalo and the author of Stop Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Isn’t Enough.