Toward a more reflective planet
argue that we should abandon research on cancer drug because it is unproven.
The US National Academy of Sciences first called attention to what it then described as “climate modification” in a 1983 report. It recommended careful research in 1992 and again in 2015. Major environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council support careful, small-scale research. Yet no such programme exists.
One reason for this is concern about the diversion of resources from other approaches. And, of course, there are tradeoffs. But the US, for example, has an annual climate science budget of around $3 billion. An exploratory solar geoengineering programme, costing only a few tens of millions of dollars per year, is entirely feasible.
A larger obstacle to progress is fear that more attention to geoengineering solutions would sap motivation to cut emissions. Maybe so, but it would be barking mad to take up smoking simply because an experimental cancer treatment showed some promise on a lab rat. And, in fact, it is conceivable that a concerted effort to advance research on albedo modification could spur action to cut emissions, much like a graphic look at the side effects of chemotherapy prompts some to stop smoking.
Whichever reaction prevails, the moral imperative to explore a technology that can protect the poorest and most vulnerable this century would seem to trump amorphous concerns that doing so could weaken the incentive to pursue solutions that would largely benefit future generations.
China has initiated a limited research programme on albedo modification. The US has not. Given that albedo modification is the kind of technology that necessitates an open, transparent, and international research effort – precisely the kind of effort in which the US excels – this is a serious failing.
The US government should take the lead now in researching albedo modification. Even if the result was that albedo modification does not work, the dividends of such research would be enormous, owing to the added pressure to cut emissions. And if it turned out to be successful, the social, environmental, and economic returns would be tremendous.