It sounds like something out of science fiction: A country suffering from heat, flooding, or crop failures decides to send out a fleet of aircraft to spray a fine, sun-blocking mist into the earth’s atmosphere, reducing temperatures and providing relief to parched populations. Other countries view it as a threat to their citizens and are ready for a military response.
The practice, known as solar geoengineering, is theoretically possible. And as the world’s most vulnerable populations suffer more sharply from rising temperatures, global decision-makers will likely come under heavy pressure to deploy the technology, scientists and policymakers say. Compared to other methods to combat the effects of climate change, it’s likely to be cheaper and faster.
“Parts of the U.S. Government are rightfully focused on trying better to understand this,” said Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, referencing last year’s geoengineering exercise. “If you don’t understand it, you can’t manage it.”
The science is evolving, said Goodman, a longtime expert on the intersection of climate change and security. But global discussions haven’t kept up, leaving a powerful technology largely unregulated internationally.
The lack of global coordination on geoengineering is increasing anxiety about the risks of disagreements. A climate change-focused National Intelligence Estimate from 2021 — the distillation of U.S. spy agencies’ assessments about the top risks facing the United States — warned that the absence of regulations could mean that “state or nonstate actors will independently develop or deploy the technology — possibly covertly — in a manner that risks conflict if other nations blame them for a weather disaster they believe was caused by geoengineering.”
Now some U.S. Intelligence officials are focused on understanding the challenges. A favorite read among some is a 2020 novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” by Kim Stanley Robinson. It envisions a near future in which, among other developments, India decides unilaterally to deploy solar geoengineering in defiance of a global ban after a heat wave kills 20 million of its citizens. Former president Barack Obama named it one of his favorite books of that year.
Solar geoengineering “has potential social and ethical issues around public consent and has the potential to spawn international conflicts,” Ajay K. Sood, the principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, told a climate-focused conference in New Delhi this month, adding that research into the technology in India was “nascent.”
“This technology may end up concentrating power in rich countries or nonstate actors in the global north,” he said.
“In troubled neighborhoods like ours, the protocols of the trials will need to be coordinated and collectively monitored, which becomes an impossibility in the highly fractured and polarized environments like the one that exists between Pakistan and India,” said Malik Amin Aslam, a former Pakistani minister for climate change.
Scientists say the technology necessary to hack the atmosphere is not complicated. Airplanes would spray sulfur into the sky at high altitudes. The material would condense, reflecting some of the sun’s rays and shielding the Earth. That would mimic the cooling effect of a large volcanic explosion, which happened after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. According to NASA estimates, that volcano heaved about 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and lowered the average global temperature by about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the next 15 months.
“The future depends on getting an ambitious response to the climate crisis put in place. And we need to be open to recognizing that some approaches fraught with downsides might still deserve to be considered just because the alternatives are so serious,” Field said.
Some scientists say the risks could be significant. Changes to the atmosphere would shift weather patterns and create droughts. A less-intense sun could lower crop yields and lead to hunger. There are concerns that temperatures could build outside the sulfur dioxide layer that, if the spraying is stopped, could unleash a catastrophic heat wave worldwide. Some climate experts worry that societies might use the technique to stall the emissions cuts needed to fix the root of the problem.
What could make the sulfur technique so much more effective is what makes it diplomatically complicated: It doesn’t stay above the country that does the spraying. Instead, it spreads across the globe. Beijing’s decisions could have climate consequences in the United States — and vice versa.
“I can see this going wrong someday,” said Elizabeth Chalecki, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska Omaha who has studied the intersection of climate and security issues. “You can’t even govern based on carbon emissions. How will you govern a technology that could purposefully alter planetary living conditions?”
In the absence of global consensus, some private groups are taking matters into their own hands. One company, Making Sunsets, declared late last year that it had released some balloons filled with a compound that could reflect sunlight into the atmosphere. The release was done in Mexico, prompting a backlash and the Mexican government to ban experimentation last month.
China has had a state-backed solar geoengineering program at Beijing Normal University for much of the past decade, but it does not appear to have done open-air testing. The country has a long history of smaller-scale efforts to modify the climate, such as when it spent $30 million shooting salt and minerals to clear skies before the 2008 Beijing Olympics or seeds clouds to make it rain ahead of other politically sensitive events.
In the United States, research has also been expanding. “There’s a wealth of scientific evidence in the last decade that these technologies really could significantly reduce the human environmental costs of climate change,” said David Keith, a scientist at Harvard who is a prominent researcher in the field.
Around the world, many researchers are exploring what solar engineering might mean for their regions, even if their home countries are unlikely to deploy the technology.
Inés Camilloni, a climate scientist at the University of Buenos Aires, said the technology might still address some short-term challenges. She has researched the consequences of solar geoengineering on the Plata River basin that stretches across a densely populated region in South America. Deploying the technology, she found using lab modeling, would likely lead to higher river levels, decreasing drought but increasing flooding.
Researchers in South Asia say that it is easy to imagine disagreements across borders about solar geoengineering — especially given that cooperation on some issues is already tenuous at best. China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh share river systems but don’t always give each other the rainfall and river level data needed to predict and prepare for floods.
Since solar geoengineering could change weather patterns, that could make predicting rainfall even more challenging, said Mohammed Abu Syed, a senior fellow at the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, researching how geoengineering could change rain patterns in his country.
There is little trust across borders, he said. One country’s deploying a geoengineering program “would influence the whole hydrological regime of South Asia,” he said, but Bangladesh’s broad floodplains might bear the brunt of new, unpredictable weather.
If solar geoengineering has negative consequences, he said, “We would be the ones who would most suffer from this.”
A previous version of this article identified Sherri Goodman as the vice chair of the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board. Goodman spoke as a longtime expert on the intersection of climate change and security, not as an outside adviser to the State Department.
John Ravenporton is a writer for many popular online publications. John is now our chief editor at DailyTechFeed. John specializes in Crypto, Software, Computer and Tech related articles.