It’s important to avoid magical thinking. Solar geoengineering is not a solution to global warming. It’s a desperate gambit to blunt some — not even all — of its worst effects.
Yes, a geoengineered future may be scary. But unchecked climate change is absolutely terrifying. And attempts to prevent it aren’t working.
Climate activists typically blame the failure to cut emissions on greedy corporations and crooked politicians. If only. The regrettable reality is that people around the world demand cheap energy and punish leaders who threaten their access to it. The rare politician who dares to lead is liable to pay a price: Witness the Yellow Vest uprising French President Emmanuel Macron faced for hiking fuel taxes. Protesters from Ecuador and Egypt to Iran, Nigeria and Indonesia have taken to the streets in recent years when fossil-fuel subsidies come under threat.
The grim politics of net-zero could leave geoengineering as a final gambit. Unlike carbon abatement, there’s no need for a global consensus to launch it. It just takes one decision-maker to conclude the costs of runaway climate change are likely to be more than what it would take to create such a project.
There are plenty of candidates.
Today, about 70 countries have government spending budgets above $20 billion, meaning that, after the technology has been set up, they could sustain a geoengineering project for potentially as little as 10 percent of their overall spending. Austria could afford it on its own for 1 percent of its yearly public spending, and the Netherlands for 0.6 percent of its budget. Japan, with huge high-value infrastructure at sea level, could do it for 0.02 percent of its budget.
This means someone is virtually sure to give it a try sooner or later. If that’s the case, we must make sure it is done right.
Solar geoengineering is no panacea. But if done well, it could give humanity a couple decades of breathing room to get its act together to figure out the towering technological and ecological challenges of negative emissions. And God knows the planet could use some breathing room right now.