Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. It currently represents an overwhelming risk of disaster that we cannot adequately address at this time. That year, a third of Pakistan was under water. The western US has faced unprecedented wildfires and droughts, while people in the east have been drowning in their homes. Coastal and island communities began to relocate, and record-breaking temperatures wreaked havoc across Africa, Europe and South Asia.
All countries from around the world have recently gathered at the recent UN climate summit COP27 to push ahead on climate action, but are struggling to meet their goals. Aggressive emissions reductions remain essential, but no level of emissions reduction can counteract the warming effects of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. In any climate change scenario, the earth will continue to warm over the next 30 to 40 years. This is an enormous risk of catastrophe for which we have no insurance and poses the greatest threat to the world’s most vulnerable people.
So what should we do? This is where science comes into play. In recent years, scientists have evaluated technological approaches derived from processes observed in nature, also known as “climate interventions”, as ways to rapidly reduce greenhouse gases or warm the atmosphere.
A climate intervention could provide the emergency medicine the world needs. The fastest and most scalable approaches involve increasing the reflection of sunlight from clouds and particles in the atmosphere, a phenomenon already occurring when large volcanoes erupt or particles from emissions lighten clouds, cooling today’s climate. The idea is to mimic these effects in a cleaner and more controlled way to keep human and natural systems stable while society reduces emissions and moves towards a more sustainable future.
By 2050, over 1 billion people could be displaced by climate change, mostly in developing countries. We currently have no options or plans for their safety. In the same period, many species and natural systems can be lost. The extreme events we are witnessing today are only expected to intensify, pushing infrastructure and economic systems beyond their limits. In the face of this stark reality, climate action is receiving increased attention from a wide range of institutions, governments and international bodies – including the first-ever chapter on the subject in an international scientific assessment attended by the United Nations. Even longtime skeptics have begun to draw attention to climate interventions.
To be clear, before society invests in climate intervention capabilities, or anyone attempts to use them, we need to have a far better understanding of their impacts and risks, while also having capabilities to monitor and predict their impacts. A lot of research is needed. Philanthropic funding has helped fuel early efforts by leading scientists, including more than $7 million through the Safe Climate Research Initiative.
But U.S. federal government investment in climate and climate intervention research will be critical. Climate research requires advanced supercomputer, data analysis and remote sensing technologies, which are concentrated in the United States and other developed countries. The US Federal Science Agency provides scientific support for a variety of environmental agreements around the world, as well as science and surveillance programs. Under bipartisan direction from Congress, US science agencies will soon release the first report by a national government on the research needed to help scientifically evaluate the reflection of sunlight from the atmosphere into a cool climate. This is an important step forward for research into and governance of climate interventions.
However, countries in the Global South are facing the worst impacts of climate change, and some stakeholders in the Global South are reviewing activities and expressing interest in analysis, evaluation and development of climate action. It is imperative that countries of the Global South are involved on an equal footing and that their experts are involved, as these regions are expected to suffer the worst impacts of climate change while contributing the least to the crisis.
Those in positions of power and influence have a moral obligation to help the world understand near-term climate risks and the potential for interventions to protect the world’s most vulnerable people and natural systems. This starts with doing everything we can to ensure we have timely data to make informed decisions and to weigh the risks of taking action against the costs of inaction.
It is becoming painfully clear that climate change is not measured solely by the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. It is also measured in human life and suffering. It’s time to make every possible effort to reduce emissions. It is also time for serious research into climate intervention, as this may be the best insurance we have for keeping disasters at bay and preserving a world where nature and society can thrive.
Kelly Wanser is Managing Director of silver lininga non-profit organization committed to ensuring society has the information and options to address near-term climate risks.