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Let’s Talk About Geoengineering

There is growing scientific interest in solar geoengineering as a possible means of combating climate change in conjunction with emissions cuts. But by foregoing debate and research on these new technologies now, political leaders may actually increase the risks of their future misuse.

CAMBRIDGE – Negotiations on geoengineering technologies ended in deadlock at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, last week, when a Swiss-backed proposal to commission an expert UN panel on the subject was withdrawn amid disagreements over language. This is a shame, because the world needs open debate about novel ways to reduce climate risks.

Specifics aside, the impasse stemmed from a dispute within the environmental community about growing scientific interest in solar geoengineering – the possibility of deliberately reflecting a small amount of sunlight back into space to help combat climate change. Some environmental and civil-society groups, convinced that solar geoengineering will be harmful or misused, oppose further research, policy analysis, and debate about the issue. Others, including some large environmental groups, support cautious research.

By reflecting sunlight away from the Earth – perhaps by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere – solar geoengineering could partly offset the energy imbalance caused by accumulating greenhouse gases. Research using most major climate models suggests that solar geoengineering might reduce important climate risks such as changes in water availability, extreme precipitation, sea level, and temperature. But any version of this technology carries risks of its own, including air pollution, damage to the ozone layer, and unanticipated climate changes.

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