Solar Reflection and Reducing Climate Risk

Tuesday, May 24, 2022
A general view of the landscape with plumes of smoke from the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires filling the sky, near Ocate, New Mexico REUTERS/Adria Malcolm
Stewart M. Patrick

James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program, Council on Foreign Relations


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations


Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Stewart M. Patrick, the James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at CFR, explains climate intervention techniques including sunlight reflection and discusses the potential risks and benefits of their use in mitigating global temperature rise. Carla Anne Robbins, CFR adjunct senior fellow and former New York Times deputy editorial page editor, will hosts the webinar and helps frame stories about climate change and adaptation for local audiences.


FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational research institution focusing on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions of matters of policy.

This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you draw connections between the local issues you cover and national and international dynamics. We are putting you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and providing a forum for sharing best practices. So with that, thank you all for joining us. The webinar is on the record. We will post a video and transcript after the fact. So today we will discuss a new Council special report entitled Reflecting Sunlight to Reduce Climate Risk with the author and our speaker Stewart Patrick and host Carla Anne Robbins. We shared the report with you, so you have that all in your hands. Let me just read a few highlights of our distinguished speakers’ bios.

Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at CFR. He previously served on former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s policy planning staff for a range of global and transitional issues including refugees and migration, international law enforcement, and global health affairs. He’s the author, co-author or editor of five books, including The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World, and Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security. And he also writes a CFR blog, The Internationalist.

Carla Anne Robbins is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She is faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. And previously she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. So thank you, Stewart and Carla, for being with us today. We’re going to turn it over to Carla to have a conversation with you. And then we’re going to open it up to all of you on the call for your questions and comments—either by raising your hand or by writing in the Q&A box.

So, Carla, over to you.

ROBBINS: Thanks so much, Irina. And thanks so much, Stewart. It’s so great to see you. I was saying before that the last time I saw Stewart was actually in person at an event. We were in Paris. Although, it was incredibly hot. And we were reminded—because I think it was in June—we were reminded, climate change even then was just unbearably hot. (Laughs.) But at least it’s a cool day today. So maybe Donald Trump was right. It gets cool in the end of May, maybe there’s no climate change. OK, that’s all the climate denial we’re going to get for today.

So I’m not a science reporter, but I am an editor, at least in my last iteration, of business. So at least part of the conversation today I hope will focus on how we can shape these—this incredibly important topic into accessible stories for our readers. Many of you are regulars. You know, the drill. We’re going to chat here. And we hope that you guys are going to have really great questions and comments about this because, you know, I am a science fiction reader, and there’s a lot of science fiction at work here, OK? (Laughs.) So let’s start.

Martin Amis said that the Cold War arms race was a race between nuclear weapons and ourselves. And climate change feels much the same, and definitely that we are losing at this point. So can you start for us, you know, with a very quick summary of this idea on solar reflection? It sounds pretty science fiction-y to me. You’re muted.

PATRICK: There we go. Sorry. Yeah. I have to say that when I first—when this idea first came up, I thought it sounded a little crazy. It sounds sort of dystopian as well because it seems, you know, messing with—interfering with the Earth system, right? Sort of your hand on the thermostat that basically determines, you know, what the nature of nature is and how—you know, what the global environment is like. But I guess the more I started looking into it, the more I was interested in the fact that some of what’s being proposed has natural analogs, and also that it’s not as if we live in the best of all possible worlds right now. We are, in fact, already running perhaps unintentionally or unwittingly quite a massive experiment, certainly the largest that humanity has ever run, by continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So we need to compare what we’re going to be talking about, not against some perfect world but against this very, very fraught world and dangerous world that we’re entering.

Basically, the idea of sunlight reflection has been around since about the 1960s or so. The idea is that if you could—at a very, very modest scale—increase the reflectivity of the Earth to incoming sunlight, you could actually then reduce its heating impact on accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We all know that since this started, the industrial revolution, average global temperatures, surface temperatures, have increased about 1.1 degrees Celsius. And they’re on their way to get much, much hotter. In Paris in 2015, U.N. member states agreed that they would try to hold temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius increase from pre-industrial age, and ideally no higher than 1.5 degrees Celsius. But right now we’re on track basically to blow by that, probably towards 3 degrees Celsius at least during the course of this century. And these are sort of massive—that would be a massive impact.

The idea of sunlight reflection, there are a number of different ways you could do it, in principle. But in putting—even putting space mirrors up, as Elon Musk and others have suggested, to try to reflect sunlight back into space from orbit. But the two most promising strategies—and both of them mimic natural processes—one of them is called stratospheric aerosol injection, which, again, sounds kind of creepy. But it’s basically the idea of dispersing from balloons or aircraft sulfates, or calcites, or some other material into the stratosphere. So both where planes fly—would normally fly. And it basically would do something like what volcanic eruptions do.

Some of—some of the journalists may be old enough to remember Mount Pinatubo. And when it exploded in the Philippines in 1991 it sent huge quantities of ash, including sulfates, into the atmosphere. And in addition to creating spectacular sunsets over the next year, it actually—over the next year or fifteen months—it actually reduced global temperatures a half a degree Celsius, or 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is quite remarkable. And then those eventually fell out of the sky and you sort of returned to the sort of normal pace of things.

The other way of accomplishing this is called marine cloud brightening. And that would involve creating sort of specialized nozzles and putting them on boats or ocean platforms and spraying—basically, just lofting sea salt particles, just sea salt, several hundred feet into the lower atmosphere, the troposphere. And then something called boundary layer convection would have that go up into the clouds, and it actually brightens marine clouds. And you would have to have certainly several hundred of these vessels or platforms around the world doing this.

And there are some—there are some calculations that suggest this could be done remarkably cheaply. That you could, for between $10 and perhaps $10 billion a year, which is pretty cheap for somebody even like Elon Musk, you could basically just for that expense, with planes continuously flying for stratospheric aerosol injection, you could actually stabilize or even begin to reduce global temperatures, even as greenhouse gases continues to build up. And so it could be hugely high leverage, relatively low cost, and rather effective.

Now, again, this is not—by no means is this a cure for climate change. The logic behind it is that we currently have three—basically three tools that we use for managing global climate risk. The first one is emissions reductions, right? We’re trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And we’re supposed to halve them, cut them in half, by 2030. But in fact, we’re on pace to go up by 16.3 percent by 2030. The second thing is carbon removal, right? We want to suck that carbon out of the atmosphere. And you can do that through nature-based solutions—you know, growing a bunch of seaweed or planting trees. But you can also do it by creating negative emissions technologies—carbon capture and storage. And there’s—it’s really promising, but it’s going to take decades for either of those things to go to scale.

And then the third tools we have to deal with climate change is adaptation, right? We build resilience. We build seawalls. We try to reduce the heat effect of cities. We try to do drought-resistant agriculture. All those things are enormously important, but they’re basically about trying to make things a little bit less awful. What his technique would do, at least in theory, is to shave the peak, as they call it, of global warming, so you don’t get this catastrophic heating that you got, for instance, in India recently. You basically could limit heating. It does nothing about greenhouse gas concentrations. It does nothing about ocean acidification. But at least it could be some way of trying to, again, buy time during this timing crunch that we have as we try to go towards decarbonization.

ROBBINS: Oh, OK. So, you know, it’s interesting, you were talking about people who are—who are old enough on this to remember something from 1991—(inaudible)—showing. But, you know, I show my students this wonderful video that Vox did just six or seven years ago that tracks sort of the change in political attitudes in the United States towards climate change, and how actually there was a time when Republicans embraced climate change, including Newt Gingrich. But one of the things that’s so interesting to remember is how reasonably recent, you know, the statements, you know, that 95 percent of scientists, you know, in the IPCC accepted the notion that climate change was manmade and that it was pretty damn serious. And that’s not a very long time ago, about fifteen years or so.

So something like this, which sounds, as I said, so fantastic—and I don’t mean positively fantastic, but as in fantasy—you know, is this a sort of an outlier thing? Or are there really serious scientists who are saying we have to take a really hard look at it? And if there are really serious scientists, you know, are they a small percentage of them? Or is it moving more toward the mainstream? And has the IPCC talked about it? You know, the big, main epicenter community? I mean, where is this? Where is this? Are you an outlier?

PATRICK: Yeah, no, I mean, I think—I mean, it’s interesting. It’s both still an outlier topic, and yet there are many, many scientists, climate scientists, increasingly who embrace it. It remains highly controversial. The notion of sunlight reflection—and I should say, that is, in a sense—some people say, well, you’re just using a euphemism. I find it more accurate. And the National Academy of Science, they have a big report on this advocating for more research on it too, and better governance, last year. They also called it sunlight reflection and reflecting sunlight. It’s also known as solar geoengineering, solar climate intervention, solar radiation modification. There’s a bunch of different terms.

And it is highly controversial because there are a number of potential unintended consequences that could result, that we can talk about. There are also in particular—

ROBBINS: Like blotting out the sun?

PATRICK: Say it again?

ROBBINS: You mean, like blotting—like blotting out the sun?

PATRICK: Right, blotting out the sun, right. (Laughs.) Exactly. Well, it’s—yeah. I mean, basically, you know, it’s—as I said, it would be a very, very small percentage of sunlight that would be in the sense of the sun being dimmed. It would probably not in most cases be really appreciable. It would probably be 1 percent of incoming solar radiation. But there are questions about what will—what will this do to the ozone layer? What might this do to—would it have any health impacts? The amount of material being contemplated, being used, is highly modest. So even if you use sulfates, which contribute to, say, acid rain, for instance, it’s quite modest compared to the existing pollutants that are already there. In fact, every year humans put up 250 million metric tons of pollutants—atmospheric pollutants into the atmosphere. So that stuff is there. And this, in a sense, would be, like, a healthier version of that.

And I should mention also, those pollutants in the atmosphere right now reduce—keep global temperatures 1.1 degrees Celsius cooler now than the Earth would be in their absence. So as much—so we’ve gone up 1.1 degrees Celsius, but pollutants are keeping us from going up to 1.1 degrees Celsius more. (Laughs.) So I just want to, again, reiterate that this—that in some sense there are analogs, either natural in the case of volcanoes or not natural. It is—it has been the third rail of climate policy.

And the reason—one of the big reasons that it’s the third rail of climate policy is that people fear what economists call a moral hazard, right? That if you actually did this, that it would provide a get-out-of-jail free card for governments, corporations, and consumers to continue their polluting ways, right? They’d say, hey, that’s—and especially fossil fuel companies, right? They might say, wow, this is terrific. We get to keep on doing this, and we’ve got this—we’ve got this sort of escape hatch, which is called—we’ll just—we’ll just, you know, keep doing the sunlight reflection. There’s actually a lot of polling data and research that suggests that is not the case, that actually even the prospect of doing this makes people actually take climate change more seriously because if they think, oh my God, if we’re doing this sort of Dr. Strangelove stuff to the planet, then we must really be in dire straits. And they would be correct in assuming that. (Laughs.)

But there are many scientists around the country and around the world who are quite interested in this. And interestingly, it’s not just in the United States. In the developing world, many poor countries are going to be hit hugely hard, much harder than the United States will be, because of climate change. And there are a number of scientists around the world who are increasingly voicing at least some approval for doing this as a stopgap measure for the world to get—while the world gets its act together on greenhouse gas emissions. There are—there’s a big solar geoengineering project at Harvard University. There’s a very big marine cloud brightening project—or, a marine cloud brightening project at the University of Washington. People are beginning to think about getting out of the labs and testing these things in smaller scales. And so it’s taken quite seriously.

On the negative side, there was in January a group of prominent academics—mostly academics—got together and had an open letter calling for an international nonuse agreement for solar geoengineering. And what they said was: We don’t believe that there should even be any publicly funded research in this, because we don’t want to normalize this topic, because we feel like it could have dire effects of a number of different sorts. And there are other potential effects that need to be—need to be analyzed. My own opinion is that more research is good. I am not in favor of deploying sunlight reflection if we find out that it is bad, any more than I am in favor of, you know, the Food and Drug Administration legalizing or giving its approval to medications that turned out to cause birth defects.

I think that there are ways to conduct science with appropriate governance and oversight in an international way as well so that you find out whether or not this could be useful or not. Are the negative consequences and risks not worth it, or are they worth it? And I think that that’s where we are right now.

ROBBINS: So if I were to do a story on this, I mean, and you mentioned the Harvard research group on this and the University of Washington research group. Who are the big names on both sides who are, you know, really respected scientists, whose work I should be looking up?

PATRICK: Yeah. The—I mean, I think David Keith, who is at the Harvard Solar Geoengineering Project, he helps run it, he is—and he has other colleagues there. Gernot Wagner is another one of them there, Josh Horton. There are folks at Cornell University as well. Doug MacMartin at Cornell University. There is a very active advocacy entity called SilverLining, run by a woman named Kelly Wanser, who is very, very active in this space. There’s a certain amount of technology sort of philanthropic money that’s going into this field.

The name of the person who authored the—it’s escaping me—but the name of the person who authored—or, at least, who coordinated the global nonuse agreement is escaping me right now. But it, again, has sixty-three prominent academics. And if you look at the Solar Geoengineering Nonuse Agreement, then you—if you Google that, you’ll find their affiliations. And so there are a large number of people who are also opposed to this. Other people in the field, who are—have—are sort of cautiously interested in it would include Alan Robock, who’s at Rutgers University, and a number of other places.

I should note that at a—at the federal level within the United States, the United States is already investing modestly in some of the related science. My report calls for more funding to go to the Department of Energy to look at climate aerosol interactions. They would deal with the stuff in the troposphere, the lower atmosphere. NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they obviously—they are quite involved in this. They have a program called Earths Radiation Budget, which does atmospheric science. The National Science Foundation funds lots of work in this field.

The Department of Defense even has some activity in this field. That has to be handled very delicately though, because there’s—there are potential suspicions of the U.S. actually militarizing this sort of technology, or that others might, quote/unquote, “militarize” it. And one of the important things is keeping all countries on board because the barriers to entry are not very high in this field. And there are major problems for a potential geopolitical confrontation or miscalculation if countries start to treat this as a wild west scenario where there are competing geoengineering programs. And this sort of thing could be coming down the pike unless there are multilateral rules of the road.

So that’s the second piece of my report. It calls for money for research grounded in international cooperation, you know, an ambitious U.S. research program to see whether or not this makes sense. And then the other is U.S. diplomacy to try to make sure that all countries say on board and are—and agree to certain rules of road, including any decisions about any significant deployment of these untried techniques.

ROBBINS: So are—I mean, the need for norms, the need for treaties, the need for some sort of agreement certainly makes sense to me. Are there other countries that are more seriously investing in this, or more seriously—or, closer to actually trying to do something?

PATRICK: There are—the Chinese had—interestingly—had a program—a modest but serious research program from about 2015 to 2019. And they appear to have discontinued it. But I’m sure that the United States was watching that program. I would not be surprised if the Indian government started getting more interested in it too. There are questions as to whether or not, depending on the nature of the intervention, what it would do the monsoon pattern, or what it could do to the monsoon pattern in the Indian Ocean if there were a global program. So that’s a wrinkle that, again, would need to be found out by research.

Which I should mention that the National Intelligence Council—which, you know, does the national intelligence estimates on the part of the intelligence community for the federal government—it actually came out with its first national intelligence estimate on climate change, ever, last October/November. And there was a really interesting wrinkle in that. It was basically talking about, well, what does the geopolitics of climate change look like? And it does not look pretty. That is the current geopolitics. But what it suggested is that as climate change and its impacts worsen around the world, there is a significant possibility that countries will engage in unilateral geoengineering schemes. And the United States needs to be careful about that.

And so my understanding is that there have been some efforts to have scenarios and play out some of those sort of gaming exercises within the U.S. government to see, OK, what would happen here if a country went and started doing this? The other question is, would we know about it? And that is one of the findings—at least according to the folks who advised me on this report, and there are quite a bunch of advisors—that we don’t have the really good monitoring capabilities and attribution capabilities. So if suddenly—we could probably detect changes in the atmosphere. Whether or not we could detect who had actually been responsible for it is another question. So again, it creates this major problem—cooperation problem internationally.

ROBBINS: So if, you know, we worry about other people messing around with it, wouldn’t that be sort of an argument for creating a norm to not do it in the first place? Other people may not be as careful as one might want? (Laughs.)

PATRICK: Yeah. I think that—yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that—you know, my report calls for a temporary moratorium on any sunlight reflection activities that could cause appreciable changes to Earth’s climate. So it does not call, however, which some people have called for, which is a ban—a treaty banning or regulating research on this at this particular moment. I guess the way I look at it is that we are in a very, very dire situation with respect to the climate. So we need to at least explore all potential alternatives, even if they are at least initially unsettling or unorthodox, because the future—well, the present that we have already entered into is highly unsettling and dangerous.

And you’re all aware of some of the most recent, you know, findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which just finished its sixth cycle of assessments. And they are very, very dire in terms of the state. The state of climate science showing, you know, where the world is headed, showing how adaptation is lagging, the missions are lagging. And I think in addition to a lot of what we see is sort of a steady state that things are getting worse, worse, worse. The more concerning thing is that the Earth may be actually courting tipping points in certain components of its natural systems.

So these include a rapid collapse, potentially, of Antarctic ice sheets, a rapid dieback of the Amazon rainforest, which by some calculations has already become a net emitter of carbon as opposed to a carbon sink. The rapid melting or Arctic permafrost which, again, is going to be catastrophic if that occurs. And then even a shutdown of the Atlantic conveyor belt that helps keep—you know, associated with the Gulf Stream. But that keeps basically Europe temperate. And so there are a major, major changes afoot, you know, and coming waves of climate refugees and all kinds of sort of political and social dislocation and economic dislocation in a lot of parts of the world.

So again, that’s where I think this needs to be—at least be looked at and investigated, to see what its potential consequences could be. Because right now policymakers are, in a sense, flying blind because they don’t have the necessary knowledge base to be able to make informed decisions. And what I worry about is—right, it’s 2022 now. What if 2030 rolls around, there have been, you know, heat waves in India that have killed millions of people, right? And that’s actually how one of these science fiction books that you sort of mentioned—or, I mentioned before we got on, The Ministry for the Future. And actually, from what I understand—I haven’t read it yet—but it begins with a—you know, twenty million people, I believe, sort of dying in India. That’s kind of the way it opens, because of the combination of high heat and high humidity.

So if you sort of—you know, the level of desperation that some countries may feel—you can even imagine Bangladesh, right? Forty percent of my country’s going to be underwater. What would be to stop the Bangladesh government from sending some millions of dollars to, you know, retrofit planes to do this on its own? So you can sort of imagine a very dystopian scenario the way we’re going, I guess is what I would say.

ROBBINS: Thanks. That leads into—and we’re going to want recommendations on dystopian reading at the end. (Laughs.) As if life were not dystopian enough for these days. So our friend, Robert Chaney from the Missoulian, his mic’s not working so I’m going to read his question.

What sort of international forum—you’re going to love this. This is one of these international institutions/global governance questions. What sort of international forum is available to oversee this concept? Could the U.N., for example, stand up a forum that could have enforcement judgement authority before someone like Elon Musk decides to act independently? Or, as you were saying, the Bangladeshis or the Indians. Does a lack of global oversight argue for restraint—I asked that question—in further research? So is the U.N. looking at this? Would it be the right place to have a conversation like this? And or if you were to bring it to a place like that, would the inevitable reaction be, well, let’s just shut the whole thing down before anything happens?

PATRICK: Yeah. I think there is just certainly a chance of that occurring. The U.N., my report would argue, it is one of the places which needs to look into this. Very briefly, right now under international law, including U.N. treaties, countries have almost entirely—entire freedom of action. I mean, there are certain customary international law things, that you shouldn’t do things on your own territory that have spillover effects that are negative to others, right, OK? So there are some broad principles. The paper, the report goes through sort of twelve different international conventions that at least speak somewhat to it. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, even outer space treaty. You know, a number of different conventions. The endangered species act—or, excuse me—U.N. Conventional on Biological Diversity. But by and large, they have carte blanche.

There has been very little discussion about this at the multilateral level because it has been the third rail at the multilateral level too. So the IPCC report for the first time mentioned—or, not the first time—but a little more extensive than they had in the past. But, again, you know, a couple of paragraphs here or there. There’s been almost no willingness to engage within the IPCC. There was an effort by the Swiss to bring up a resolution in 2019 at the United Nations Environment Assembly, which meets in Nairobi periodically. And it was shot down. And a lot of folks just really don’t want to talk about it.

With respect to—and I’ll just touch on the Elon Musk thing, which is very interesting. Is, you know, another novel, which has been by the bestselling author Neal Stephenson, called Termination Shock, begins—it has its scenario, without giving anything away, is a big wealthy Texas billionaire who tries to take matters into his own hands, because he wants to do something about climate change—to combat climate change. And David Gordon—not David Gordon—David Victor of University of California, San Diego has called this theory, or this approach, the “Greenfinger” scenario, right? It’s not Goldfinger, right, but it’s Greenfinger. You would get some wealthy individual.

That is a little bit far-fetched, I think. And he believes that too, as well. But what’s to stop other countries from doing it? I would say the U.N. is an important venue. I could imagine as a start that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres could appoint a high-level commission on—you know, on this, as a response to climate overshoot. It could lay the groundwork for some sort of eventual U.N. instrument or certainly deliberations within the U.N. General Assembly on this. You know, the difficulty always within the U.N. General Assembly is that it’s so encrusted by these different regional and ideological blocs. And so you have to think that you would want to break those up somehow or at least have a little bit more fluidity.

I think the good news in this particular scenario is that there are—there’s some alignment in views on the part of a number of developing countries that are really, really hurting with climate change, and developed countries. I also think that this could make interesting sort of strange-bedfellows possibilities within more selective groups. So I don’t just talk about the United Nations as the U.N. General Assembly. I talk about the U.N. Security Council. The difficulty there, I think, probably is going to be Russia more than China. China is highly, highly concerned about climate change, and is not least water—in terms of waters scarcity—is highly vulnerable to climate change. So you could actually imagine a useful dialogue between the United States and China in the U.N. Security Council and other venues.

I talk about the Major Economies Forum, which is the group of major emitters, as another venue. The G-20 as another venue. The Russians are tricky because, I think, from—the Russians have been much more—notwithstanding the melting permafrost—they have been much more optimistic about climate change, I think, because they see the wheat belt extending quite a bit north into Siberia. So they may not think that this is necessarily a bad thing for them. And then finally, I do talk about the importance of trying to build some common perspective within the club of Western countries as well, the G-7 NATO countries, et cetera, U.S.-EU. So there are a lot of different potential venues for it, where you could begin to forge some agreement.

ROBBINS: So, please, Robert started us off with a good question. Please raise your hand. And if you can—if your mic’s working, we’d love to have you ask the question rather than having me do it. So while I wait for you guys to jump in—I will also call on you. I do that. Now that I’ve turned into an academic, I call on people. So we have—oh, no, not a question yet. That was an urging of questions. So there was going to be a test, I gather, in Sweden, and it was cancelled because of local complaints? Can you talk about that, and who sort of organized the local complaints, and what they were like? And is the test going to be rescheduled? I mean, this is an interesting sort of—was it a town and gown problem, or what?

PATRICK: Yeah, no, and it actually has relevance, certainly for folks in, you know, local and regional journalists, I think. Because these tests have to be launched from somewhere, right? Although they could be launched off the coast, even in international waters, for instance. But, yeah, what was going to happen was—it was called SCoPEx, which was Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment, SCoPEx. And with all due respect to David Keith and his colleagues at Harvard Solar Geoengineering, I think sometimes—(laughs)—sometimes the language that one uses, again, can seem a little bit sort of, you know, technical—

ROBBINS: Perturbing?

PATRICK: Yeah, perturbing, exactly. (Laughter.) Sort of technical fix language. I think, you know, I could imagine that some folks sometimes need a little bit of a branding and marketing. We got a little bit of grief for calling it sunlight reflection but, you know, it has the benefit of explaining what it is, and it also sounds slightly more benign than, you know, stratospheric aerosol injection. But so the idea here was that there was going to be—it actually wasn’t even testing the sulfates or other material that was going to be put in the atmosphere. It was sort of testing a spray—I mean, I believe it’s sort of testing a nozzle or a delivery device from a balloon. And it was going to take place in Lapland in northern Sweden.

And it relatively quickly got emmeshed in—it became a lightning rod for environmental critics—environmentalist critics. And there are many environmental critics who I would describe as somewhat absolutist who, you know, would love to throw the stand in the gears of any of this stuff. And you know, endless, you know, tying things into red tape and endless processes of public consultation, notwithstanding whether or not there’s even sort of elected representatives doing this. But in this case, it also got involved in the politics of the Sami people, who have been—even by our, you know, lovely Nordic friends—have occasionally gotten the short end of the stick in terms of Scandinavian politics. And so it’s an indigenous community. You know, there was a question of, well, could—you know, did they get—did they give permission? Was this going to have any health impacts in Sweden? Which obviously is a highly environmentally minded country, et cetera.

So even though the risk would have been infinitesimal, perhaps not even measurable, that experiment got cancelled. And there are no current plans, I believe right now, for this to occur in the future. I think one of the lessons of that is not simply that—it’s not necessarily that, wow, what a terrible idea that was. Because I think these things—these apparatus’ need to be tested. But I think a lot of it probably—there are undoubtably lessons to be taken for the importance of real consultation and sort of laying the groundwork and communicating—you know, sort of risk communication. Like, what’s a real risk versus what is, in a sense, an imagined risk. And, you know, reaching out and cultivating different constituencies, because I think otherwise then it risks, like many things that involve technology, being sort of somebody else’s techno quick fix.

ROBBINS: So, Mike Allen, would you like to ask your question?

Q: First I had to figure out how to unmute. Can you hear me OK?

ROBBINS: Absolutely.

PATRICK: Sure can.

Q: OK. So what I just typed was: For journalists that cover governments on a local or state level, and I addressed this both to Stewart and to Carla, do you see a way to frame these ideas within those lenses? Is there any way, for example, that a city or county government could have some stake in exploring these ideas?

PATRICK: Yeah, I think so. I think on probably a couple levels. One of them is just the growing, you know, threats posed by climate change. And heat in particular, and its ramifications. You know, there are, you know, undoubtably ways that communities all around the world are trying to build resilience. I spent a lot of time because of a grandparent’s house in—vacation house at Lake Tahoe. And go up there and see the folks, you know, in Nevada county or in Placer County trying to deal with the extraordinary ramifications of wildfire, and what that has done, and how devastating it is to the local economy. Not just tourism, but obviously the local economy in general. And so part of it could be, well, in addition to building resilience and adapting to this situation, you know, are there things that can be done that might—even if they’re done at, in a sense, a global level—could have, obviously, local ramifications?

But the other would be, I think that, let’s say journalists who might be where the—you know, might be where some of these experiments would be taking place. So, you know, does there require a town council or a—or the county executive and the county council to actually sign off and weigh in on whether or not an experiment could—should take place. Let’s say the marine cloud brightening project was going to be taking place off the coast of Washington. And there are plans for the University of Washington to test out some of this stuff off the coast. That is both a curiosity, but also could—you know, so kind of an interesting public interest or community story. But it also could be a question of, well, what the heck are these guys doing? Is this safe at all? Is there a way—and it could be both sort of demystifying stuff, but it also could be a little bit investigative. Did they actually talk to anybody? Did they run this by, or are they just going with the feds in terms of their sort of regulatory approval that they need? Should there be some sort of level of local authorization that needs to happen?

So I would see those are—those would be two obvious ones. Another would be—would be what would be the impact on, you know, potato farming in Idaho if—you know, or precipitation patterns in, you know, the Pacific Northwest, or something along those lines? If this were to—if this were to happen, what do we actually think? There are these global things, but they’re going to have local effects. Do we know about these local effects before we start going down this road? So it might be kind of a way, interestingly, of tying, you know, what people say—they talk about the “glocal,” right, tying the global and the local together and showing how they interact with one another. Just a couple of thoughts. I haven’t—I should have thought about that question more. It’s a great one.

ROBBINS: So, thanks. So Joe Zlomek from the Posts asks—I’m skipped over him because he asked a question that I’m going to turn back on him. He said—so I’m going to read your question. I’m going to ask you to work with Stewart on the answer.

Stewart, thanks for introducing the topic. Your paper may address this, but I’ll ask it anyway. Why trust—and then he has in caps—ANY government with enabling this kind of technology? Even if they agree to what you describe as a hope for, quote, “multilateral rules”? History has too many examples of governments ignoring such agreements. And certainly, you know, you were talking about the Sami. Certainly, our treatment of indigenous people, certainly the—you know, anything from nuclear waste to all the terrible ways that the environment has been treated. You know, just trust me, I’m the government, is not a particularly good one.

So, Joe, implicit in your question is that you don’t trust the government. If—or maybe—you know, maybe the academics either. If, you know, you’re covering something and you’re in northwest Washington, what sort of questions would you be asking of the government, of academics, that—as the surrogate for citizens that you would—you know, and could you trust any answer coming out of local officials or out of scientists? And that’s a question to Joe from me. You are unmuted, so.

PATRICK: Yeah. OK. Yeah, and, Joe, I think I see you as still muted, if you wanted to jump in.

Q: Thank you very much. And I apologize for the delay.

As our previous questioner asked, we too are looking to localize these kinds of stories. As, Stewart, as you were talking, I was immediately thinking of the resources that our papers might depend on. State College, Penn State, comes to mind immediately, and their weather program. I was curious about the county aspect of it. And I don’t know that that would apply here, but the questions that I would ask of government, Carla Anne, to respond to you, is where’s the proof in all of this? Where can we find some demonstrable exceptions or documents that says you’ve actually stuck to your word on something before? Because we could probably all raise incidents when they hadn’t. And now what’s the—what’s the tangible proof that you’re going to stick to your word this time? I guess that’s where I’m coming from, in best answer to your question, Carla Anne.

PATRICK: Yeah. I guess what—and that’s—and, again, I understand, you know, given the history of, you know, lack of regulation for, let’s just say, you know—(inaudible)—mining technologies. Or, you know, people have complaints over major fracking, and it might have been approved, and maybe it has contaminated groundwater, et cetera. I guess I would say that—and the report goes into it in significant detail—or, at least it goes into it quite explicitly—is that, first of all, the onus should be on transparency entirely, right? So there needs to be sort of a public registry of any experiments that are planned and undertaken. And that there should be a tiered system for approval. So that those that are extraordinarily modest outdoor experiments, would probably just need to have an environmental impact statement and approval from the agency that is responsible.

There are existing statutes, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Weather Modification Act. There are a number of different existing statutes, and then also responsible agencies for those. And so I would say that they would have to, you know, follow through on the types of reviews that have occurred. I guess I would think of, in terms of analogies, you know, sort of the authorization for, you know, new agricultural chemicals or pesticides, right? Or approval of vaccines and medical devices. Now, of course, we know that particularly in this day in age it can get quite political when you’re talking about approval of new vaccines and medical devices. Or, but, you know, standard-setting for vehicle emissions as well.

So I definitely am in favor of significant or robust environmental impact assessments and review. I do not know how many different levels of review you need to go through in terms of—I’d have to think about, you know, the degree to which you need sort of municipal review of those things, as opposed to state or federal review. But I would want to see enough review to build up some level of confidence locally without, as I said, having it be so onerous that there’s no opportunity to actually engage in research, particularly research that would not rise to the level of having any major climate perturbations.

ROBBINS: I mean, I think—and we talked about this all the time—I mean, who does anyone trust these days, particularly in the polarized environment? And because we don’t even have a common language on science, and polling, and who won an election. When you want to do something this big, you know, who does one trust? You know, are people more likely to trust something from the federal government than they are from their local government or from their state government? And at the same time, while the federal government may have more resources. Say something like the National Academy of Science rules on this, are people in, you know, X state or X community going to know what the National Academy of Science is? Are they going to know what the IPCC is? To the point of, you know, how much is our responsibility as reporters to educate people on, you know, who these people are and why perhaps you should take their word on it?

PATRICK: Yeah, I think that that—

ROBBINS: Because I can’t—you’re not going to take my word, as a reporter. All I can do is do my research and tell you whether or not these people have a track record for credibility.

PATRICK: Yeah, no, and I think that’s really important. And I think that, you know, journalists, I think, can play a huge role in both holding public officials’ feet to the fire and asking difficult questions—well, how do you know that this is going to be of limited impact, et cetera? But then they can also arguably hold, in a sense, critics’ feet to the fire too as well, to, you know, really scrutinize some claims that might not withstand that scrutiny.

And I think—I think that’s really important. I do think that journalists also have to—would want to pay attention to the dangers or risks of regulatory arbitrage too, so that anybody who is trying to conduct these experiments or—would perhaps go to a place where anything goes, even if it weren’t—even if there were risks that were created. So, yeah, I understand the skepticism. And I think the press needs to give voice to that and, you know, let the chips fall where they may during their reporting. But I think that it could actually create a very interesting bridging function between a skeptical public and a government that conceivably thought that this was a good idea.

ROBBINS: Cedar Attanasio, do you want to voice your question? And we usually call on the AP first, but you got your question in late. (Laughter.) And she—she or he may have had to jump off because there’s breaking news somewhere. So I’m going to ask the question, which is: What are the environmental justice concerns of proposed approaches to this?

PATRICK: Very interesting question. I think that obviously if—I mean, they go both ways, I guess I would say. Just in terms of any sort of tests and much less deployment. You would want to make sure that you are not repeating injustices in the past where toxic waste facilities, or dangerous chemical plants, for instance, would be placed near—disproportionately near lower-income and disenfranchised populations in the United States or abroad.

I think you can actually make an argument that the social justice implications of this could be quite positive if it proved to work, because—well, again, there would have to be a lot of research using supercomputers on the distributional—the distribution of gains and losses globally. Because this does not return the climate to the previous climate. It returns the temperature to the previous temperature. But greenhouse gas distribution would be different, and there could be other ecological perturbations, or disturbances, or at least things being different from the way that they were before.

But by and large, there’s no question in my mind that a return—or, first of all, a prevention of increased temperatures, a real spiking of temperatures that will otherwise occur if global warming proceeds apace, will be a huge boon—or, at least a huge relief physically and otherwise to hundreds of millions and probably billions of people in the developing world. Some of the most eloquent voices calling for global action on climate change, of course, are from some of the world’s poorest countries. Not just those countries that are disappearing beneath the waves, as in small island—many small island developing countries, particularly in the Pacific.

But there are many places in the developing world where, you know, any progress on economic equity, livelihoods, hunger—and we saw tremendous gains since—unevenly, sure—to be sure—but tremendous gains since the year 2000 in many parts of the world, meeting what are called the Sustainable Development Goals, basically the global goals on alleviating poverty and improving health and education, things like that. But what we’ve seen in the wake of COVID, and we’re seeing even more with respect to climate change, is we’re seeing just devastating impacts.

I mean, there will be parts of the world that will be rendered too arid for agriculture. It may be rendered too hot for human habitation because the idea of simply, you know, creating huge megacities that are now slums with air conditioning is just not going to be on the cards. So for many places around the world, this will be—this could be a real boon to help allow people to survive a transition to a post-carbon world, which is obviously going to be long and protracted. And so it could, you know, help, you know, minimize sea level rise and sea level intrusion, wildfires, you know, punishing droughts, et cetera. But it does have some significant unintended—or, excuse me—potential for unintended consequences. And we just don’t know that.

And, you know, the frustrating thing is for some of these things we will not know for sure until you actually do it. I think, you know, it’s all—everything that I have said I think kind of makes sense up until, you know, even though mid-level experiments. The difficulty ultimately is going to be that line between research—and we’re not there. We’re not even close to being there. But the line between research on the one hand and deployment on the other is going to get fuzzy at some point. And we only have one world, in a sense, to experiment with. We are experimenting with it in a way we know is negative right now. (Laughs.) The question is, is the experiment we might be doing here going to make that worse or better?

And, again, I’m not in favor of deployment right now. We need to investigate this. But we also can’t afford to ignore it. The other thing is that—and just to respond to a pervious thing is how can we trust the government, et cetera. I think that’s fair. The one thing I would say is that this is coming. It may not be coming from us, but I’m almost positive that this is coming down the pike, just given the level of desperation that the world’s going to find with respect to climate change.

ROBBINS: So we only have three minutes left. I’m going to ask some short news Final Jeopardy questions unless someone jumps in, although I’m going to—Robert Chaney asks, have you seen any highly localized, save the—fill in the projects of—you know, geoengineering? You know, someone protecting a failing ice sheet in Antarctica, or saving the glaciers in Glacier National Park? Or is this a whole—

PATRICK: There are—there’s been an effort to try to do some of that, but probably the only one that I’ve really seen along these lines is a marine cloud brightening project over the part of the Great Barrier Reef, to try to save it from coral bleaching. That’s been done.

ROBBINS: And has that had any impact?

PATRICK: There was some promising results from it, from what I gather, yeah.

ROBBINS: Interesting. And then we wanted—you know, the news business is news. So things that are upcoming that we should be paying attention to. You said that there’s going to be some sort of test attempted of something by the University of Washington? Are there particular events, reports, you know, knock-down, drag-out fights between the two sides that we should be paying attention to in the next few months?

PATRICK: Yeah. I mean, again, these are mostly international events. But there certainly are—you know, there’s the fiftieth anniversary of a famous Stockholm conference on the environment and development happening in June. There is—at the U.N. General Assembly there will be, as usual, a lot on climate change. And then, of course, there’s the next meeting of the Conference of Parties—twenty-seventh conference of parties for U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. But I can’t right now think necessarily of anything that isn’t on the calendar. No doubt this summer will provide some, whether it’s the form of heat domes or the latest conflagration out west, enough climate-related topics, or the latest sort of extraordinarily violent hurricane, where one could maybe think about, hey, do we have a plan B here?

ROBBINS: Well, thank you. This has been—I can’t say it’s been happy, but it has really been interesting. We will share links to reports, including the National Academy of Science reports and Stewarts recommended dystopian reading list. And I turn it back to Irina.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Carla. And thank you, Stewart. And to all of you for joining us. We will be sending out the link. And I encourage you to follow our speakers on Twitter. Stewart is at @stewartpatrick. And Carla at @robbinscarla. And of course, as always, go to CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and Think Global Health for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and how they are affecting the United States. Again, the link to the report is in your confirm email, and we will circulate that again as well. Please share your suggestions for future webinars by emailing us at [email protected].

So thank you all again and thank you Stewart and Carla.

PATRICK: Thanks, Carla.

ROBBINS: Stay well, everybody. Have a good day. Bye.



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