5 lessons from COVID-19 for solar geoengineering

Guest post by Olaf Corry, Professor of Global Security Challenges at University of Leeds, UK / 29 October 2020

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]

Before COVID-19, a reasonable assumption might have been that if a deadly virus emerged, people would come together to harness modern science in a coordinated effort in the common interest. In reality, the picture has been much more complicated.

Researchers have made great strides towards a vaccine, partly after the Chinese early on shared the virus’ genetic sequence. EU countries pooled resources to source protective equipment for health workers. And communities struggle heroically to limit the spread.

“If the idea of suppressing temperature rise by injecting an aerosol into the sky leaves the realm of modelling and experiments, it will be thrust into a science-media-politics environment that operates in ways that are not currently anticipated—at least not in idealized modelling studies.”

But rich countries have also competitively bought up and hoarded medical equipment. The US turned on the only serious multilateral show in town – the World Health Organization (WHO) – accusing it of misleading the world and colluding with China. Russia and China are now accused of stealing vaccine research via cyber-espionage and spreading vaccine disinformation. Russia dubbed its COVID program ‘Sputnik’ and a gathering ‘vaccine race’ could sacrifice safety for prestige or profit. A botched rollout could undermine trust in all vaccines, ultimately deepening rather than solving global health crises.

So what lessons might the COVID-19 crisis offer for ‘solar geoengineering’ – the idea that interventions able to reduce a fraction of incoming sunlight to the planet might be developed to mask rising temperatures? Colleagues and I explored five such lessons in a recent commentary (although here I speak only for myself).

First a caveat: COVID-19 and climate are very different challenges, although both are global crises born of exploitation of nonhuman nature. Global warming is more long term and an entire Earth system out of kilter will be harder to govern than a rogue virus. But emergency responses to both global threats will have to navigate some of the same kinds of uncertainty and the same emerging science-media environment. ‘Pandemic politics’ may have provided a useful glimpse of what solar geoengineering has in store.

1.   The fractiousness of world politics should be factored into assessments of global interventions.

Studies of solar geoengineering often assume a benevolent ‘global planner’, or at least rational states aiming to minimise climate risks. But neither exists outside idealised models, and it would be naïve to assume that state incentives can be read off a climate simulation.

Sadly, attacks on the WHO, a tapestry of diverse national responses to the Coronavirus, and xenophobic weaponization of the virus show that global agreement is as desirable as it is elusive. Even when facing a single, nonhuman threat, leaders pursue radically different priorities and are guided by conflicting and clashing political imperatives and world views. Given current political trends, that seems unlikely to change.

This suggests that powerful global interventions may well only be realistic as something imposed by – and for – those with the necessary clout. Some kind of governance of solar geoengineering may be possible, although not all cooperation is positive (historically, empire is the most common form of ‘governance’). There are distributive and coercive aspects to all international regimes, so to be more than a sop, ‘governance’ must live up to a qualifier (e.g. ‘democratic’ or ‘just’). Realistically, that is unlikely.

2.   Anticipate that policymakers can act on ulterior motives.

When the pandemic escalated, many leaders were keen to be seen to act in high-profile ways. The US imposed travel restrictions on China, but neglected more complex and demanding policy challenges. In the UK, prestige COVID-hospitals were assembled and trumpeted, while elderly patients were sent into care homes without being tested.

Stratospheric aerosol injection may one day be a visible gesture without a strong evidence base supporting or detracting from it. It may also conveniently distract from a regime’s failure to adapt to or mitigate climate change. And once initiated, projects with grand designs that looked simple have an uncanny habit of chronic delay, of falling prey to special interests or of simply never materialising. ​Solar geoengineering could well be used for other reasons than climate risk abatement.

3.   Beware volatilities for science and policy exacerbated by new media platforms.

Science has never converted directly into policy – it cannot. Partly this is because science is the pursuit of radical doubt, not certainty. It cannot resolve questions of collective priorities, trade-offs and risk appetites. (In fact, science often generates new dilemmas).

But the covenant between science and policy is under pressure, and the new behemoth is social media. The ‘hard currency’ online is attention (not accuracy or balance), sooner generated by brazen opinion than reasoned analysis. Like it or not, when they leave the laboratory or computer model, global emergency measures will exist in a geopolitical media environment that fosters extreme viewpoints, outrage and subterfuge.

4.   Don’t allow whole-of-society strategies that take in a broader range of goals to get side-lined.

The response to the pandemic has catapulted calculable parameters such as case count, or the reproduction number R0, into the limelight. Although dogged by arguments over counting methods, the measures easily dominate and foster narrow understandings of the problem.

Climate policy too has become focused on a single metric: global average temperature. This carries dangers. Solar geoengineering is highly compatible with framings of global temperature limitation being the goal, rather than a proxy for a multitude of desired outcomes (think: human security, sustainable development, biodiversity, intergenerational justice, political stability… [insert favourite societal goal here]).​

5.   Only ‘buy time’ with drastic measures when you have a plan.

Lockdown measures were intended to buy time to scale up testing and contact-tracing and to learn how to treat the virus. In many countries, the time was not used well, leaving countries unprepared for the second wave – never mind starting work on preventing the next zoonotic epidemic e.g. by conserving wildlife habitats. Indonesian forest clearance spiked during lockdown.

Stratospheric aerosol injection has been discussed as a stopgap measure that can ‘buy time’ for more durable solutions. The time purchased could be used to bring down emissions, protect vulnerable land and populations and develop capacities to remove carbon from the atmosphere. But the mechanisms and movements capable of holding politicians accountable to those goals have yet to be developed. There is also the real risk that promises of solar geoengineering might delay decarbonization further, either by design or default.

The COVID crisis may only just have begun, but it already provides a case for adopting strong precautionary approaches to global risks like pandemics and climate change to avoid the need for risky interventions. Failing that, better safeguards are needed to ensure broad and inclusive knowledge production and debate with high levels of integrity. Social objectives like health and justice need to be made central to technology policy agendas (not just economics). The feasibility of extraordinary climate measures is likely to remain illusory without robust publics, international institutions and a durable reversal of current geopolitical trends.​

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