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The Risks of Stopping Research

While the Saami Council said that conducting any research on solar geoengineering presented high risks, SCoPEx and other scientists have said that not conducting research could be even riskier. Some researchers argue that global emissions aren’t dropping fast enough to reach the goal identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Ken Caldeira, a scientist at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science who researches pathways to net-zero carbon emissions, said there may come a time when solar geoengineering is urgently needed. The worst case scenario, he said, is that solar geoengineering is deployed in haste without a full understanding of all the consequences. Doing the research could help prevent any unknown—and unwanted—repercussions.

Jessica Hellman, director of the Institute on the Environment at University of Minnesota, who has argued for better collaboration between geoengineering researchers and ecologists, said,  “Science could help navigate the complexities of risk. I guess there is an underlying assumption that if you study something, you’re just going to enable it to happen.”

Instead, Hellman said, “Maybe the science helps figure out like ‘Oh wow, that’s harder than we thought. Maybe we shouldn’t do it.’ ”

There are also implications for science as a whole. Caldeira, who is also a senior scientist at Breakthrough Energy, said, “The precedent of stopping experiments that are in themselves benign and that do not have any expectation of leading to any sort of imminent harm—that it’s a very dangerous precedent.”

Yet, what is benign to one group may not be considered benign by another. Jennie Stephens, the director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, agreed with Whyte’s view that more effort was needed toward climate solutions that also include social change. Solely focusing on the technical solutions to climate change and not investing the same amount in social innovation and justice, she said, has resulted in climate action that exacerbates inequities and disparities.

“We won’t be able to make the transformative changes that we need until and unless we focus on social justice,” said Stephens.


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