Published: 12:11, June 13, 2024 | Updated: 13:02, June 13, 2024
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Politicization of research not good climate action
By Bjorn Lomborg

Geo-engineering is one way humanity could deal with the real problem of climate change. The standard approach — which most of the rich world is focused on — is to try to cut carbon emissions and divert investment to solar and wind energy. However, this approach is incredibly difficult and expensive because fossil fuels still power most of the world. Despite decades of political support for fossil fuel reduction, emissions have been increasing, with last year seeing the highest ever.

In contrast, geo-engineering tries to directly reduce the planet's temperature. One approach is to emit sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which would cool the planet. There is ample evidence that this works: Erupting volcanoes typically pump particles into the stratosphere, with each particle reflecting a little sunlight back into space. In 1991, the Mount Pinatubo eruption cooled Earth by about 0.6 degree Celsius for 18 months.

Harvard researchers weren't attempting anything so grand. They simply wanted to launch a single high-altitude balloon that would release a tiny amount of particulates high above Earth. Their experiment would have gathered data showing how particles disperse and how much sunlight they reflect.

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As the world has so far mostly failed to tackle climate change by reducing fossil fuel reliance, it seems prudent to also investigate other policies that could address parts of the problem. Even the United Nations admitted in 2019 that "there has been no real change in the global emissions pathway in the last decade" despite the 2015 Paris Agreement. Since then, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to reach new highs with "no end in sight to the rising trend", according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization. We're just not in a position where we can afford to ignore any pathway to mitigating climate change.

Unfortunately, as The Harvard Crimson found, pressure from climate activists made this impossible for the scientists. Even high-profile campaigner Greta Thunberg criticized the first planned tests in northern Sweden. Then the Indigenous Saami Council — whose land the tests would be above — suggested firing a single balloon into the sky bore "risks of catastrophic consequences". Politicians jumped aboard the bandwagon, including a former foreign minister of Sweden, who declared geo-engineering was "crazy", while young activists pushed academic funders to cut off funds to such research.

In addition to the activists, the project's lead researcher pointed a finger at a "vocal minority" of scientists who agree with the campaigners that geo-engineering could provide an excuse not to cut fossil fuels by highlighting another possible solution to climate change. Among such scientists, climate professor Michael Mann claims geo-engineering is a pernicious and false solution offered up by polluters to keep profiting from fossil fuels. The Saami Council opposed the Harvard experiment because the research "could compromise the world's necessary efforts to achieve zero-carbon societies".

That isn't science; it's dogma. The idea that there is only one correct policy — reducing carbon emissions to zero within a short time frame — is absurd, especially so when this sole policy is failing globally. The truth is that geo-engineering could be an incredibly useful innovation, even if it harbors risks.

Geo-engineering is the only feasible way that humanity has ever identified to lower temperatures quickly. If we were to see the West Antarctic ice sheet starting to slip into the ocean — which would be a global disaster — no standard fossil fuel policy could make any significant change. Even if all nations impossibly were to cut their emissions to zero in a matter of months, temperatures would not come down but would only stop increasing.

In contrast, geo-engineering could, in principle, end the global temperature rise — and even reverse it — at a low cost. Geo-engineering offers a price tag in the tens to low hundreds of billions of dollars over the 21st century compared with standard policy costing tens of thousands of times more.

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Of course, the world shouldn't start pumping particulates into the atmosphere anytime soon. But we need to know if this technology works and we also need to know about any potential negative impacts from its use. Partly because it is likely that countries and even the world will want to consider using this approach later but also because the cost of geo-engineering is so low that there is a risk that a single country, a rogue billionaire or even a highly energized nongovernmental organization could use the technology alone. We need to make sure the world knows the ramifications. That requires research.

These considerations are why both the scientific journal Nature and the Barack Obama administration have endorsed research into geo-engineering — even the Joe Biden administration has offered measured support.

Just like with any other research, humanity needs to know what works and what problems might arise in the future. The politicization of climate research out of fear it might lead to politically unfavorable outcomes is bad for the world.

The author is president of the Copenhagen Consensus. His new book Best Things First was named one of the best books of 2023 by The Economist.

The views don’t necessarily reflect those of China Daily.