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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Climate studies are increasingly becoming politicised. Harvard University recently shut down a key geoengineering research project because of intense backlash, despite the college’s aspiration to become “a global beacon on climate change”.

Geoengineering 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 hard and expensive because fossil fuels still in effect power most of the world. Despite decades of political support for fossil fuel reductions, emissions are still increasing, with last year seeing the highest ever.

In contrast, geoengineering tries to directly reduce the planet’s temperature. One approach is to emit sulphur 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°C for 18 months.

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

Because the world has so far mostly failed to tackle climate change through cutting fossil fuel reliance, it seems prudent to also investigate other policies that could address parts of the problem. Even the UN 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 record highs regularly, with “no end in sight to the rising trend”, according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organisation. We’re just not in a position where we can afford to ignore any pathway to solving climate change.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg. Picture: FINNBAR WEBSTER/GETTY IMAGES
Climate activist Greta Thunberg. Picture: FINNBAR WEBSTER/GETTY IMAGES

Unfortunately, as The Harvard Crimson found, pressure from climate activists made this impossible for the scientists. High-profile campaigner Greta Thunberg criticised the first planned tests in northern Sweden. Then the indigenous Saami Council, whose land would have been below where the tests were conducted, suggested that firing a single balloon into the sky bore “risks of catastrophic consequences”. Politicians jumped aboard the bandwagon, including Sweden’s former foreign minister who declared geoengineering “crazy”, while young activists pushed academic funders to cut off such research.

In addition to the activists, the project’s lead researcher points a finger at a “vocal minority” of scientists who agree with campaigners that geoengineering could provide an excuse to not cut fossil fuels by highlighting another possible solution to climate change. Among such scientists, climate professor Michael Mann claims geoengineering 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 — cutting carbon emissions to zero in a short time-frame — is absurd, especially when this sole policy is failing globally. The truth is geoengineering could be an incredibly useful innovation, even if it harbours risks.

Geoengineering is the only feasible way humanity has ever identified to cut 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 in the impossible event of all nations cutting their emissions to zero in a matter of months, temperatures would not come down, but only stop going up.

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

Of course, the world shouldn’t start pumping particulates into the atmosphere anytime soon. But we need to know if this technology might work, and about any potential negative consequences from its use. This is partly because it is now likely that countries, and even the world as a whole, will want to consider using this approach in future, but also because the cost of geoengineering is so low that there is a risk that a single nation, rogue billionaire or even a highly energised NGO, could deploy the technology alone. We need to make sure the world knows the ramifications, and that requires research.

These considerations are why both the scientific journal Nature and the Obama administration endorsed research into geoengineering, and even the Biden administration has offered measured support. Just like with any other research, humanity needs to know what works and what problems might arise in future.

The politicisation of climate research out of fear it might lead to politically unfavoured outcomes is bad for the world.

• Dr Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “Best Things First”.

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