One of the practices of geoengineering is solar radiation management (SRM), the injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to create a cooling effect with a reflective layer that intercepts sunlight before it reaches the earth. This might sound like just the Big Red Button we need to solve the runaway problem of anthropogenic global warming. The gotcha, however, is that SRM itself could trigger a further climate crisis of epic proportions. The use of SRM is certainly confusing territory, and with shockingly little broad dialogue or public debate on the ethics of this practice, understanding the potential unintended consequences of SRM is long overdue.
In 2009, the Royal Society released a report, Geoengineering the Climate, in which it concluded that while SRM is not an alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it may be the only option to reduce temperatures quickly in the event of a climate emergency. The reality is that society has made very little progress in moving towards a low-energy future that effectively manages carbon emissions to stem carbonization. In a 2013 article by LiveScience in the Huffington Post, researcher Joeri Rogelj of Switzerland’s Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science says, “While it’s true there are still uncertainties about how the climate will respond to specific strategies, these uncertainties are nothing compared with potential disaster caused by delay.” In other words, if we don’t take action to become a highly-efficient planet, SRM as a tactic of geoengineering is an inevitability.
SRM is unproven and controversial. When tampering with the relationships between living systems and the environment, the stakes become very high and mistakes difficult to correct. When substances injected into the stratosphere eventually fall to earth, it is conceivable that this would cause changes in the soil pH, resulting in defoliation, desertification, and other toxicological conditions that affect the planet and its inhabitants. While unexpected environmental damage is seen in many new clean technology solutions — such as birds flying through wind farms — scenarios even more dramatic are hard to ignore.
The issues of solar radiation management are political, moral, and existential. Weather modification activities for the purposes of warfare and climate control have been carried out for decades, so it isn’t unreasonable that there are deep suspicions that the U.S. government is actively carrying out SRM experiments. Others suggest that SRM is a cynical ploy to benefit those who strive to corporatize natural systems, as explored on the Discovery show America’s Most Secret Structures, where the writers argue that corporations that offer stress-resistant products, like seeds, greatly benefit under the conditions that SRM create. And still others simply state that with SRM comes environmental catastrophe, and that it is the single greatest threat to our planet.
Advocates for international transparency regarding SRM activities, such as Michael Murphy at GeoEngineering Watch, have been called hoaxsters and conspiracy theorists for compiling evidence to attempt to show that SRM is an active reality. And some environmentalists are uneasy to engage on an “academic” topic such as SRM that could undermine their political leverage to reduce carbon emissions. However, the real hoax is in believing that we can combat anthropogenic climate change for free, without making meaningful changes in our societal behavior. SRM has serious implications, and if the current or future policy of international bodies supports its use, then an open dialogue and accountability is required. With what we know today, massive-scale manipulation of the planetary environment may have profound environmental and societal costs that very few of us are willing to pay.