Photo: Marcus Kauffman/Unsplash
- Despite the very real proof of how the climate crisis is destroying lives and livelihoods, the world is still marked by too little ambition.
- Solar geo-engineering involves attempts to limit the solar radiation that reaches Earth, thus helping the planet’s surface cool.
- But those that have colonised the global commons with their pumping out of CO2 would largely be the same ones taking the lead in “saving us from ourselves”.
As floods in Europe and wildfires in the US and Russia dominate global news cycles, it seems that the conversation on climate change is moving forward. And maybe just in time. The next UN Conference of Parties on climate change – COP26 – is due at the end of this year. The last one was disappointing, to say the least. Shifted from Chile due to political unrest to Spain, it featured the US under the Trump administration at its worst. But there was no lack of bad actors, with the EU coming into criticism for blocking green financing, China and India being blamed for dodgy projects, and name calling all around. Greta Thunberg may have warned, “We’re watching you,” but the results were so meagre as to suggest we might just turn our eyes away.
COP26 was supposed to be held last year, but the pandemic had its impact. The venue of the conference itself – the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow – had a section made into a temporary hospital to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. To say the omens have not been good would be to put it mildly. Thus, any added impetus – whether it is videos of the flooding of New York city, to news of permafrost melting in Siberia – should probably be a good thing. The Biden administration’s first act was to recommit the US to the Paris Agreement, from which Trump had pulled it out of, so there is a different energy going in.
All that said and done, it is still worth asking what such a meeting will manage to achieve. Despite the very real proof of how the climate crisis is destroying lives and livelihoods, the world is still marked by too little ambition. Under the Paris Agreement countries were supposed to set their own ‘nationally determined contributions’ to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. As the Climate Action Tracker shows us, of the countries they are tracking, only two are on track for that – Morocco and the Gambia. Countries like China are still pursuing pathways that may be lead to warming above 3 degrees, and countries like Saudi Arabia, for a world that is more than 4 degrees hotter, on average, than the 19th century.
It is little surprise, therefore, that some people are pushing for radical solutions. Suggesting that since the world is not going to get its act together any time soon, we may require technological fixes that give us more time. This is the topic of this article’s interview with Prakash Kashwan, on solar geo-engineering. This point of view suggests that since we cannot manage the problems on Earth – or at least not quickly – then it is time to manage the radiation coming from the Sun, by limiting the radiation that reaches Earth.
This is a grand ambition, and by definition, one that is only open to those with a great amount of wealth in their hands. Kashwan uses the term “colonising the global commons”. Ironically, those that have colonised the global commons with their pumping out of CO2, would largely be the same ones who would be taking the lead in “saving us from ourselves”.
There is an internal, Indian, aspect to this as well. The two richest businessmen in India, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, both with huge and controversial investments in coal and oil, are now the leading investors in renewable energy. It is worth noting that they are not phasing out their investments in coal or oil, perish the thought, but just using money to invest in a newer sector. Given that large solar parks envisaged under these projects will require substantial land acquisition, these are likely to be justified under “green projects”, possibly displacing those who are not, in any way, responsible for the type of emissions that the Ambani or Adani projects are involved in. It is not just rich countries colonising the global commons that is an issue, but also the rich polluters in developing countries who are colonising internal spaces in the name of giving us cleaner energy, as story number 9 in our critical reading list highlights.
While the issues with solar geo-engineering might find an easier fix – after all the main actors in the global systems are countries, and even if the system favours rich countries over poor countries, there are mechanisms – there is less of a way to manage how wealth from polluting industries is green-washed internally. It is past time that countries that suffer from massive air pollution and climate change-induced disasters such as India start seriously thinking of carbon taxes on those contributing to our problems. This will give the developing world far more credibility in demanding similar taxes for global giants that have created the challenge we face. Otherwise we end up in the laughable situation of having the poor being made to sacrifice to the rich, who have been instrumental in creating these problems, in the name of saving themselves.
Prakash Kashwan is an associate professor of political science and co-director of the Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, Human Rights Institute, University of Connecticut, Storrs. He is the author of Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2017), editor of Climate Justice in India (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), co-editor of the journal Environmental Politics, and the co-founder and co-convener of the Climate Justice Network.
Kashwan is also a member of the global expert group for Scoping of Transformative Change Assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a member of the Academic Working Group (AWG) on International Governance of Climate Engineering (2016-2018), a senior research fellow of the Earth System Governance (ESG) Project, and a member of the Climate Social Science Network (CSSN) convened by Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society.
The questions are in bold.
What is solar geo-engineering? Why is it being promoted?
The idea comes from mimicking volcanoes.
Major volcanic eruptions spew ash particles into the atmosphere, which reflect some of the Sun’s radiation back into space and cool the planet. Climate scientists argue that this effect could be recreated to fight the impacts of climate change.
The argument is: it doesn’t look like the world can act to stay below two degrees global atmospheric temperature increase, which threatens to create runway climate catastrophes. Proponents argue that the relatively cheap, and relatively quickly executable solar geo-engineering projects can be used to shave the peak off the emission curve. This will buy us the time needed to get our act together (on mitigation and carbon removal).
There does seem to be a bit of “white man saviour complex” in some of the writing around it, not least in books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future. A good summary of the opening plot is here.
Why should we be concerned?
This allows for colonising the global commons.
There is unprecedented potential for one billionaire to have his hand on the global thermostat.
It is THAT cheap (leaving aside the social, environmental, and potential geostrategic security costs/conflicts). There is a similar risk with carbon removal, another form of geoengineering.
Most important is the impact that shielding Earth from solar radiation will have on global hydrological cycles. This is simple physics.
The difference in temperatures of the sea and land are what drive rainfall patterns. Once you start tinkering with this on a large scale, it is impossible to predict how these will impact large cycles such as the monsoons.
While some have argued that solar geo-engineering is likely to be relatively less disruptive compared to volcanic emissions, much depends on the intensity of solar geo-engineering.
The net impact is likely to be quite significant for Asia and Africa monsoons. India, with its critical dependence on monsoons, is one of the countries that should be addressing this proactively. About half of India’s farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and this is one of the least explored areas of concern. These are “diverse, complex, systems that depend on multiple sources of subsistence, including a reliance on seasonal regeneration of pastures in arid/semi-arid regions”. Much of this is threatened by solar geo-engineering related fluctuations. I should note that some modelling studies suggest that these concerns are not that serious, though it is worth asking if we are going to take such risks on limited data.
Is there any regulatory mechanism?
Academics have been pushing for it from 2016, with extensive (and, often time very vigorously contested) debates on governance mechanisms, including research governance. The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment’s Academic Working Group (AWG) on Climate Engineering Governance assembled an international group of senior academics to formulate perspectives on the international governance of climate engineering research and potential deployment, with a focus on proposed solar radiation management/albedo modification technologies.
The discussion has not stayed just academic. Switzerland and eight other countries raised the issues in the UN, but this was blocked by the US and Saudi Arabia.
What is the current situation?
Over the years the issue has become more mainstream. The US National Academy of Sciences, in March this year, proposed putting in $200 million over five years in researching the idea. Some scientists have backed the idea, although the governance for these solutions which will have global impact are less clearly stated.
The lack of governance thinking has led to face offs. The Sami indigenous group managed to stop an initial experiment from taking off. But this is not a sustainable way forward. While some social scientists (including me) have called for a moratorium in our submissions to publications such as Nature and Science, as the climate crisis intensifies, people will be open to more radical ideas. We need to have a governance protocol for how the impact of such things can be assessed.
What should we be thinking about?
It has become a stiff political battle already. Anyone who pretends otherwise is not being honest. The recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences brings it close to being a part of the US climate policy portfolio. Parts of the scientific community are trying it very hard to legitimise these experiments, with global South scientists and civil society is being co-opted rapidly.
There is some opposition by civil society organisations in the global North, but it is not very clear how well people understand the challenges.
Mere opposition without a way to talk of governance risks that these things may be pushed through in a laissez-faire manner, without transparency and accountability.
It is interesting that there seems to be a strong link (though no smoking gun) between the fossil fuel industry and solar geo-engineering. Pages 36-38 in this report points to some of those longstanding ties.
This article and interview were first published on Environment of India, Omair Ahmad’s newsletter about India’s environment through a multi-disciplinary lens. Subscribe here. They have been republished here with permission.