Controversy Within Controversy: Lack of Diversity in Geoengineering Research

Although the urgency of the climate crisis becomes clearer day by day, climate action stays behind. This has sparked a conversation around solar geoengineering among scientists. First proposed by Dutch Nobel prize laureate Paul Crutzen in 2007, solar geoengineering comprises altering Earth’s albedo to reflect more incoming solar radiation. This could lower global temperatures and thereby partly offset climate change, but not without risks of its own. Since Crutzen’s paper, theoretical research on the controversial topic grew steadily but crucial real-world data remained missing.  To get such data, a recent project attempted to start field experiments this year, but instead led to critical questions regarding the inclusivity of geoengineering research and governance.

Research on solar geoengineering so far has only been done through simulations and small-scale experiments in the laboratory. While these methods have provided lots of information, they do not give a full picture and carry high uncertainties. Real-world data is simply necessary for proper assessment. Importantly, the most commonly suggested methods of solar geoengineering are based on the use of aerosols. There remains lots of uncertainty around aerosols within models however, making field experiments even more crucial to properly understand the mechanisms involved. This is why Harvard scientists started  a project called the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx).

SCoPEx has the purpose of retrieving real-world data to improve modelling of solar geoengineering through several experiments. It focuses on aerosol microphysics and atmospheric chemistry; specifically, it aims to study the interactions of particles with background stratospheric air, and solar and infrared radiation. The first experiment of SCoPEx would consist of launching a high-altitude balloon in order to test whether it could carry equipment necessary for injecting aerosols into the stratosphere. This experiment was planned to take place in Kiruna, Sweden, in collaboration with the state-owned Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) in June. However, after protest from environmentalists, scientists, and Swedish citizens, it was cancelled.

The equipment for the first experiment by SCoPEx

Although the first experiment would not inject any aerosols into the stratosphere, subsequent experiments would include particle release flights. Because of this, environmental groups collectively wrote to Per Bolund, the Swedish minister for environment and climate, in order to appeal to governmental intervention to SSC’s involvement with SCoPEx. They argued that geoengineering is incompatible with the precautionary principle and thereby inconsistent with Sweden’s climate policy framework. Moreover, they believe that solar geoengineering is a “a technology with the potential for extreme consequences, and stands out as dangerous, unpredictable, and unmanageable. There is no justification for testing and experimenting with technology that seems to be too dangerous to ever be used.” Their open letter eventually led to the cancellation of the first SCoPEx experiment

However, the potential dangers they elaborate on in their letter are not new discoveries ; they have been widely discussed in the scientific community before. Harvard professor Frank Keutsch himself, who leads SCoPEx, shares the concerns brought up by the environmentalist groups. Nevertheless, he believes that climate change is too big of a problem to not at least consider geoengineering. In order to make the best assessment of its potential risks and benefits, proper research is necessary and small-scale experiments are required for this. The risks of climate change might exceed the risks posed by solar geoengineering; however, this would be impossible to know without research. Because of this, Keutsch argues that “the risk of not doing research on this outweighs the risk of doing this research.”

However, another letter, written by the Saami Council, poses a more critical question. The Saami are an indigenous minority group spread out over Scandinavia, and have been systematically oppressed by the Swedish government throughout history. For example, their lands have been used to build train tracks and coal factories despite opposition from the community, killing reindeer on which many Saami depend. In their open letter to the SCoPEx advisory committee, the Saami Council argues against the general idea of solar geoengineering, similarly to the environmentalist groups. Their stronger point however, lies in their critique on the lack of inclusivity in the decision-making process of SCoPEx.

Meet the Sámi - Finland's indigenous people —
Reindeer play an important role in traditional Saami culture and many people in the community depend on reindeer herding.

The Saami Council brings up the fact that SCoPEx did not apply for permits from the Swedish government, nor engaged in any discussion with the Swedish research community, civil society and Saami people in Kiruna, despite the obvious controversy around geoengineering. Neither is there any Swedish representation within SCoPEx itself. Moreover, the Council criticizes the homogeneity of the Advisory Committee of SCoPEx, as members are appointed through Harvard University and do not include people from affected groups. Furthermore, the committee consists almost exclusively of US citizens. Unfortunately, this resembles the wider debate around solar geoengineering, as most research on the topic comes from American and European institutions.

While policy-making regarding climate action is often dominated by Western countries, climate change will carry most consequences for the Global South. This would also go for geoengineering, meaning that the Global South actually has the most to gain and lose from decisions around climate change and geoengineering. Adding onto that, due to the easy applicability and relatively inexpensive nature of solar geoengineering, democratic governance is predicted to become an issue if ever  applied, worrying experts in the Global South about Western dominance even further. However, these experts are also vigilant of opponents in the Global North attempting to paternalistically convince peers in the South to reject geoengineering. Instead, they argue that the Global South should lead in the research and discussion around geoengineering. 

An outreach workshop in Ivory Coast organized by SRMGI in September, 2019. It was organized completely in French, allowing broad participation by scientists and citizens alike.

Interestingly, unlike their Global North peers, experts in the Global South have already set up programs to increase public engagement. One example is the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI). This international, NGO-driven project seeks to expand the discussion around solar geoengineering through providing outreach workshops to diverse groups in various countries, providing a more transparent and inclusive debate. Doing so, it has provided a successful framework for public engagement, which could be adopted by SCoPEx in order to reach out to Swedish citizens. Fortunately, the SCoPEx Advisory Committee has recently declared their commitment to public engagement with Swedish and Indigenous communities, as well as to diversifying their committee members. Hopefully, they look at the great work done by their peers in the Global South to both adopt their methods, as well as hire them.

Overall, while the cancellation of the SCoPEx experiment hampers research, it has provided a critical review of the lack of diversity within geoengineering research and governance. Hopefully, through this situation, the research community will become more inclusive of the marginalized people that will be most affected by geoengineering. Although experimental research is necessary to make a proper assessment of the risks and benefits of geoengineering, there needs to be careful and open deliberation around the issue. Geoengineering already promises to become a difficult governance issue if ever applied, so decision-making around it should be transparent and inclusive from the very beginning in order to set the norm for democratic policymaking in the future.

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