Ask the experts: geoengineering

Geoengineering is the large-scale intervention of the earth’s climate systems with the aim to counteract climate change. Could this solution reverse large-scale greenhouse-gas production? If so, what are the proposed techniques and are they even safe to test?

We asked leading experts for their views on this critical topic: Rupert Read, academic, Green Party campaigner and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion; and Andy Parker, the Project Director of the solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative.


Rupert Read

Do you believe the current plans for carbon taxes and decarbonisation will be enough to curtail anthropogenic climate change?

Rupert: In a word: no. No way… While policies like 'carbon taxes' are necessary and to be welcomed (provided they are done in a ‘ progressive’ way: e.g. via a fee and dividend mechanism, or (better still) ‘ carbon rationing’), they are undermined by the policy goals that governments, both left and right, are committed pursuing in almost every country in the world. Most governments are signed up to ever-expanding economic growth as a policy goal. This is a philosophy fit for the cancer cell, not for the political bodies responsible for ensuring our continued survival and/letalone flourishing. Any efficiency gains made by policies like a carbon tax are fast outweighed by the expansion of the economy (e.g. via the Jevons Paradox effect), which comes with an expansion in emissions and the destruction of ecology (as documented in Tim Jackson’s work).

What is the precautionary principle?

Rupert: The precautionary principle is a legal and philosophical decision-making tool. While there are different formulations of the principle, they coalesce around the idea that in the absence of certainty but in the face of credible catastrophic threats, we need to act ahead of the evidence to remove the threat. While being evidence-based is often thought of as a good thing, there are times when the remaining uncertainty in the science should serve as a reason to regulate, rather than waiting around for the evidence to come in. While this may slow the process of implementing some new technologies, this is a price worth paying to ensure that we do not stumble into catastrophe.

What’s the one biggest danger in researching solar radiation management (SRM) technologies?

Rupert: 'Moral hazard’ is a real danger. What we absolutely must not do is give people the impression that SRM will enable us to carry on polluting like there is no tomorrow.

I have argued for many years that SRM should be discussed, and researched by way of models etc. Because it is a brilliant way to bring home to people the horrors we are facing. Ordinary citizens, when they find that SRM is being researched, tend to get it more that the climate crisis is real.

But we mustn’t allow research and discussion to segue into legitimation.

SRM is simply a form of [turbo-charged] shallow adaptation. We need to put geoengineering firmly in its place in the conversation it is part of - the adaptation conversation. And seek to dialectically oppose it with Transformative and Deep Adaptations.

If there was one type of SRM technology you could completely prevent from ever being experimented with, which would it be and why?

Rupert: There should be no experimentation ever with SRM at scale. Because experimentation = implementation. 

If there was only one thing they could do, what could the public be doing to support you?

Rupert: If there is one thing that people can do to support the movement that I am part of, the movement to save our common future, it is to be honest with themselves and each other about the scale of crisis we are in. That begins with acknowledging your own fears, and reading about the crisis, and then talking about it honestly (including with your children). This radical honesty is a prerequisite to effect action on climate and ecological breakdown. I think that if people are honest, they will realise that there is a very real chance that such breakdown will occur (perhaps: is occurring). Realising this will also shift the conversation in a necessary way towards adaptation to a more hostile climate as well as emissions mitigation. We need people to act at different levels. Consider what skills and resources you have and apply them to tackling climate and ecological breakdown however you can. Whether through your job, through your financial resources, through your mind, or (most nobly of all) by putting your body on the line.


Andy Parker 

Do you believe the current plans for carbon taxes and decarbonisation will be enough to curtail anthropogenic climate change?

Andy: No. Current policies are projected to result in global warming of roughly 3C. That might not sound like much but it means heat waves, rising seas, droughts and more powerful storms – with the effects falling disproportionately on the poor. Even if countries fulfil all the pledges that they have made, the planet is expected to warm beyond the 2C limit agreed at the UN. 

What is solar geoengineering?

Andy: Solar radiation management geoengineering (SRM) is a controversial proposal for reducing some of the impacts of climate change by reflecting away a small fraction of inbound sunlight. Leading proposals include injecting tiny reflective aerosols into the upper atmosphere to replicate the cooling effect of volcanoes, or spraying seawater into low-lying marine clouds to make them more reflective.  

Why do you think it is important for SRM techniques to be researched?

Andy: SRM has the potential to be very helpful or very harmful. It is the only known way to quickly stop or reverse the rise in global temperatures. This means that if we humanity fails to cut carbon emissions fast enough, SRM could be the only way to keep warming below 2°C. But it could also have damaging side effects, could cause political tensions, and could distract politicians from cutting emissions. The stakes are high, and we are going to need much more evidence if we are to make an informed decision as to whether to use or reject it.

If there was one type of SRM technology you could completely green-light and push through the research of, which would it be and why?

Andy: I would not want to pick winners at this stage because we just don’t know enough to make informed choices. We need to accelerate research on all the different ideas because ignorance is not going to help us evaluate them.

If there was only one thing they could do, what could the public be doing to support you?

Andy: The bigger question is what green groups and governments could be doing to support SRM research. Wherever public engagement has been done it has found that publics support more research into SRM – even though they are quite sensibly opposed to using it at this stage. Green groups and governments need to lend their support to SRM research so that we can find out whether it would reduce or increase the risks of global warming

Our EngTalk on the 16 July 2021, Geoengineering: In case of emergency, break glass will see Rupert, Andy and the audience discuss all angles of this debate that affects both humanity and the future of our planet. Register for a free place at theiet.org/geoengineering

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles