Last month I was honored to attend the Forum on Solar Geoengineering (also called Solar Radiation Management or SRM) in Washington DC. It was a valuable gathering of 110 experts, reflecting significant technical progress and political change in the last year. With the new US administration, things could move quickly, forward and / or backwards. It’s up to us to make sure that things move towards success. To succeed, we must define success clearly and as something we want.
What would successful SRM achieve?
One of the panelists at the forum said that SRM success is staying below two degrees warming. That goal is arguably too vague to elicit specific and effective action. I think experts will agree that SRM actions as a whole have been indecisive and hesitant; actions consistent with a vague and unappealing goal.
As a parent, I’m clear that success is restoring a healthy climate for our children, and doing it before we lose much more of the beauty and glory of our planet. Although the IPCC may disagree with that goal, that is what I want, and what almost everyone I speak with wants, and what the clergy I speak with now demand. We have a moral obligation to give our children and grandchildren a climate close to that which we were given. If we don’t yet know how to achieve it then we are obligated to invent the methods required. Not knowing how to do it does not absolve us from that obligation to our children and grandchildren.
As an SRM outsider with children here’s what I want from SRM:
- Be prepared to cool the planet with SRM during the time during which carbon dioxide removal is operating.
Assume that we will implement carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and reduce atmospheric CO2 back to levels that have supported humans in the past, i.e. below 300 ppm. We should target achieving this by 2050, although it could take until 2100. Recent work confirms what Dr. Jim Hansen said in 2008, that CDR investment of about 1% of global GDP could remove the trillion tons of excess atmospheric CO2 in 20-50 years. This requires removing 50 GT / year, which scale could be achieved by any one of seven techniques, using direct air capture (DAC), or ocean processes (references forthcoming).
- Be ready to start SRM within 2-3 years—by 2020.
Waiting longer is too late, arguably criminal, given rapidly worsening climate trends from the arctic to the equator. We need the insurance policy of SRM. If we don’t provide that, our children should sue us for dereliction of duty—perhaps as part of “Our Children’s Trust” lawsuit. Insofar as we are the leadership for SRM, we are morally, if not legally liable. This is a harsh assertion, but arguably true.
This isn’t saying that we must implement SRM—implementation is now a moral decision. This community must prepare to implement SRM. As technologists, our obligation is to provide the tools. The humanists could in the end insist that SRM not be implemented, and that we should continue into the sixth extinction. If so, that will be their responsibility, and we will have provided options to save the planet. I consider that SRM veto most unlikely—after we’ve prepared the following data for consideration.
To be prepared, we must answer some critical questions:
- What are the best options for stopping sea-level rise, and for halting ice sheet collapse in Antarctica and Greenland?
- What are the best options for weakening the cyclones decimating the Philippines and other areas?
- What are the best options for stopping permafrost melt and a “methane burp”?
- What are the best options for restoring the Gulf Stream and other ocean currents?
- What are the benefits to society and nature of implementing SRM? We have dozens of articles about the risks, but precious little about the benefits. Given the public data, it’s no surprise that there is low public support for SRM.
- If SRM is required, what are the real options for implementing SRM quickly? What are the technical, financial, and logistical options? There is great fiction about that, but little policy work.
I am proposing that a “Climate Restoration” center be established in 2017 to host research to answer these critical questions which will allow progress towards restoring the climate. If you have a recommendation for where this could be hosted, or individuals and groups that might want to contribute funding, please contact me: Peter Fiekowsky firstname.lastname@example.org