By Hassaan Sipra, Director of Global Engagement
Though discussions on the idea of atmospheric modification to counteract global warming are more than half a century old, it was Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize Winner Paul Crutzen who effectively broke the taboo on solar geoengineering in 2006, by discussing the role of large volcanic eruptions in producing a cooling effect on the planet. I first read Crutzen’s seminal essay in 2018 when I was working at the Centre for Climate Research and Development, COMSATS University Islamabad. This was three years out from the landmark Paris Agreement, where nations worldover agreed to limit global warming to between 1.5oC and 2oC. That same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their special report on 1.5oC warming, painting a grim picture of the future ahead – high confidence that global warming will reach 1.5oC between 2030 and 2052.
Combined, Crutzen’s essay and the IPCC special report were a reminder that time was running out, particularly for countries in the Global South, which face the brunt of climate impacts, with limited resources to build resiliency. At the time, I could already see the impact of 1.2oC warming on my home country of Pakistan, with heatwaves, droughts, and flooding made more intense and frequent, resulting in unprecedented damages and socioeconomic challenges. It was becoming clearer to me that countries’ climate pledges were not in line with their Paris obligations and that a likely global temperature overshoot (even a temporary one) would spell disaster for Pakistan, and many countries in the Global South. It clicked for me that an imperfect solution like solar geoengineering could potentially stave off the worst impacts of climate change, but also highlighted the need for greater solar geoengineering discussion on the world stage, as the field is inching from science fiction towards science reality.
Since climate change governance continues to evolve as we move further along business-as-usual warming pathways, it is not hard to fathom a world in the near future that may feel the need to include solar geoengineering as an option to alleviate climate impacts. After all, there was a time not too long ago when the world considered climate adaptation a taboo as well. That perception of climate adaptation changed in the 1990s, led by Global South countries demanding more action; it became an important part of the portfolio to address climate change when it became clear that the pace of decarbonization was not sufficient, with societal vulnerability to climate impacts quickly rising beyond our capacity to address them in a resilient manner. Today, interest in solar geoengineering is ramping up for similar reasons, with hundreds of scholarly articles published, ranging in topics from its science, engineering and governance perspectives.
Almost all articles make the same three key points. First, solar geoengineering is not an excuse to delay mitigation efforts – that should remain the priority. Second, solar geoengineering could only be a temporary measure to stave-off the worst impacts of climate change and to avoid an overshoot. Third, it is integral that inclusivity, equitability and consensus building be within the mandate of any governance framework around solar geoengineering research and its potential deployment.
I share all these perspectives, but it is the last point that is of greatest interest to me, particularly as it relates to the representation of the Global South in the growing debate around solar geoengineering. To date, the vast majority of research and discussion on solar geoengineering has taken place in the Global North, which is dangerous and deeply unjust. The stark reality of climate change is such that the poorest, most vulnerable populations, largely in the Global South, those least responsible for a warming planet, currently have limited say in such prescriptive measures.
Despite there being limited research into solar geoengineering, one consistent finding of perceptions studies that look into the topic is that the Global South is more amenable to engaging with the idea of solar geoengineering as compared to the Global North. Last year, I presented preliminary results (currently in peer-review) on perceptions of Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan at a Resources for the Future academic workshop on the social science aspects of solar geoengineering. In short, our survey-based research similarly finds that, in comparison to people in the Global North, Global South people are more open towards the concept of solar geoengineering as a potential response to avert irreversible climate impacts, but remain divided on how best to move forward.
Understanding and bridging this divide between Global North and South countries is crucial to evaluating solar geoengineering appropriately for decision making. There is a need for concerted efforts to build the capacity of climate vulnerable communities world over to engage with this topic, so as not to rob them of their ability to make decisions that impact their lives. At present, that is not happening almost anywhere, meaning that the overwhelming majority of people are unaware of the potential risks and benefits posed by solar geoengineering, and are ill-equipped to make decisions regarding it.
This is what attracted me to the mission of The Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering (DSG), to build sustained governance capacity among Global South civil society organizations and policy makers to make informed decisions that rest on their local vulnerabilities, and empower them to directly implement and participate in the governance of solar geoengineering research and its potential deployment. Considering if solar geoengineering is potentially viable, Global South countries have the most to gain the most, and if its dangers outweigh its benefits, Global South countries have the most to lose. Whether and how countries opt for solar geoengineering or not remains to be seen, but the debate surrounding it must take a more balanced approach, with Global South countries having an equal footing in the decision making process. It requires building the capacity of Global South countries to engage effectively with this topic, with DSG being one of the very few organizations that is undertaking such critical work.
DSG aims to address this gap by working with civil society organizations, local communities, and policy makers on-the-ground in the Global South through its iterative capacity building model to generate good governance. The goal of DSG is to augment ownership of this critical issue by Global South representatives to build long-term, durable and sustainable capacity systems that enable countries to effectively address current solar geoengineering governance shortcomings.
Though solar geoengineering does not exist at present, the technology to go ahead with it is not far off. In these beginning stages of global discussion on solar geoengineering, it is necessary to build an ethical, justice-based framework that relies on the expertise and power of those who have the most to gain or lose from its potential deployment i.e., the Global South. Building this capacity effectively requires resources, time and trust. Global South countries should be decision makers, far more than just passive participants in global governance frameworks surrounding the subject, which has often not been the case at the start of any climate change related engagements. DSG hopes to change that, and I am excited to be a part of that journey.