White House cautiously opens door to study to block sunlight to slow global warming

The White House has offered measured support for studying how to block sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface to limit global warming, in a congressional-mandated report that could help spur efforts once confined to science fiction in the realm of legitimate debate.

The controversial concept known as solar radiation modification is a potentially effective response to tackling climate change, but one that could have unknown side effects resulting from altering the chemical makeup of the atmosphere, some scientists say.

The White House report released Friday evening says the Biden administration is willing to study the possibility that altered sunlight could rapidly cool the planet. But he added some skepticism by noting that Congress ordered the review, and the administration said it was not reporting any new policy decisions related to a process that is sometimes called — or derided — geoengineering.

“A research program on the scientific and societal implications of solar radiation modification (SRM) would enable more informed decisions to be made about the potential risks and benefits of SRM as a component of climate policy, alongside the fundamentals mitigation and adaptation of greenhouse gas emissions,” the White House report said. “SRM offers the possibility of significantly cooling the planet on a time scale of a few years.”

Still, the White House said in a statement accompanying the report, “there are no ongoing plans to establish a comprehensive research program focused on modifying solar radiation.”

Skeptical or not, the fact that the White House has weighed in on solar experimentation is remarkable. The concept has created divisions among experts, with some saying it could be a last line of defense against runaway warming if countries fail to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while others warn that it could lead to an addiction to atmospheric substances which, if stopped, could lead to sudden increases in temperatures.

“The fact that this report even exists is probably the most important thing about this publication,” said Shuchi Talati, executive director of the Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering, a nonprofit organization that seeks to include developing countries in the solar modification debate. . “This report also signals that the US government supports well-governed research, including outdoor experimentation, which I believe is quite important.”

The report, which was required by Congress in a policy report accompanying the 2022 appropriations bill, was released the same week European Union leaders opened the door to international discussions on modifying solar radiation. . It also followed a call from more than 60 leading scientists to step up research on the subject.

The 44-page document considers a few plausible ways to limit the amount of sunlight hitting Earth, all of which could have significant downsides. One method is to multiply the amount of aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect the sun’s rays away from the planet – a process that can occur naturally after a major volcanic eruption. Others include either increasing cloud cover over the oceans or reducing the amount of high-flying cirrus clouds, which reflect solar radiation back to Earth.

There are risks associated with every form of solar radiation modification, according to the report, that can affect human health, biodiversity and geopolitics. Indeed, altering sunlight could alter global weather patterns, disrupt food supplies and lead to abrupt warming if the practice is widely rolled out and then stopped. Nor would it address air pollution from fossil fuels or ocean acidification, a major threat to coral reef ecosystems due to the overabundance of carbon in the air and seas.

At the same time, the White House stressed the importance of weighing these uncertainties against the current dangers associated with a warmer planet.

“Climate change is already having profound effects on the physical and natural world, as well as on human well-being, and these effects will only grow as greenhouse gas concentrations increase and warming continues. “, says the report. “Understanding these impacts is crucial to enable informed decisions regarding a possible role of SRM in addressing the human challenges associated with climate change.”

The White House has said any potential research into altering solar radiation should be undertaken with “appropriate international cooperation”.

European Union policy makers have signaled their willingness to start international discussions on whether and how humanity could limit solar heating.

“Guided by the precautionary principle, the EU will support international efforts to comprehensively assess the risks and uncertainties of climate interventions, including modification of solar radiation, and encourage discussions on a potential international framework for its governance. , including research-related aspects,” the European Parliament and European Council said in a joint communication on Wednesday.

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of the new report or its potential political significance.

Given the polarized political climate in the United States, the Biden administration is right to proceed with caution, said Talati, a Capitol Hill and White House political veteran who recently served in President Joe’s Energy Department. Biden.

“The politicization around climate change has obviously been the main driver” of the political stalemate on cutting carbon emissions, she said. “And so I think it’s also important to try to avoid politicization around geoengineering.”

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