The move, which has not been previously reported, marks the first federally coordinated US effort of its kind. This could set the stage for more funding and research into the feasibility, benefits and risks of such interventions. The effort may also contribute to the perception that geoengineering is a relevant and important area of research as global temperatures rise.
Solar geoengineering encompasses a number of different approaches. What has attracted the most attention is the use of airplanes or balloons to disperse tiny particles in the stratosphere. They would then – in theory – reflect enough sunlight to facilitate warming, mimicking the effect of massive volcanic eruptions in the past. Some research groups have also investigated whether the release of certain particles can break up cirrus clouds, which trap heat on Earth, or make low-lying marine clouds reflective.
The 2022 federal appropriations bill signed by President Biden in March directs his Office of Science and Technology to develop an interagency group to coordinate research on such climate interventions, in partnership with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ) and the Ministry of Energy.
The measure asks the group to create a research framework to “provide guidance on transparency, engagement and risk management for publicly funded work in solar geoengineering research.” Specifically, it directs NOAA to support the Office of Science and Technology Policy in developing a five-year plan that will, among other things, define research goals for the area, assess the potential hazards of such climate interventions, and assess the level of federal investment needed to carry out that work.
Geoengineering has long been a taboo subject among scientists, and some argue that it should remain so. There are questions about the potential side effects on the environment and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly in different parts of the world. It is not clear how the world will grapple with tricky questions about global governance, including who should make decisions about whether to deploy such powerful tools and what global average temperatures we should aim for. Some consider geoengineering too dangerous to ever attempt or even research, arguing that just talking about the possibility could make the need to address the root causes of climate change seem less urgent.
But as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, more researchers, universities and nations are seriously investigating the potential effects of these approaches. Several prominent scientific groups, in turn, have called for stricter standards to guide the work, more money for it, or both. These include the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which last year recommended the establishment of a US solar geoengineering research program with an initial investment of $100 million to $200 million over five years.
Proponents of geoengineering research, stressing that reducing emissions must remain a top priority, say we should explore these possibilities because they can significantly reduce the dangers of climate change. They note that as heat waves, droughts, famines, wildfires and other extreme events become more frequent or severe, these types of climate interventions may be among the few available means of quickly alleviating widespread human suffering or environmental disasters.
Setting the standard
In a statement, the Office of Science and Technology Policy confirmed that it has created an interagency task force, as required by the federal funding bill. It includes representatives from 10 research and mission agencies, including NOAA, NASA and the Department of Energy.