- Sunlight reflection or solar geoengineering involves releasing aerosols into the atmosphere to temporarily cool the Earth.
- The Degrees Initiative, a nonprofit research organization, just announced a $900,000 round of funding to grant scientists in Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand and Uganda to study its effects.
- The grant money comes from Open Philanthropy, a philanthropic organization primarily funded by Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana, and his wife, Cari Tuna.
Scientists from Africa, Asia and South America are getting a new infusion of $900,000 to study the effects of reflecting sunlight to cool the Earth and mitigate the impacts of global warming. The money comes from Open Philanthropy, a venture funded primarily by billionaire Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana, and his wife, Cari Tuna.
Sunlight reflection involves releasing aerosols like sulfur dioxide high in the atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays back into space, temporarily mitigating global warming. (It's sometimes called solar radiation modification or solar geoengineering.)
The idea has been around for decades, but it is being taken more seriously as the effects of climate change become more apparent. While volcanic eruptions have proven that the technique can work, there are significant risks as well, including damage to the ozone layer, acid rain and increased respiratory illness.
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On Tuesday, nonprofit research organization The Degrees Initiative and the United Nation's World Academy of Sciences announced they are distributing more than $900,000 to scientists across Africa, Asia and South America to study solar radiation modification in a program called "The Degrees Modelling Fund." The Degrees Initiative has been funded by various donors over the years, but the biggest has been Open Philanthropy and all of the $900,000 disbursement announced Tuesday came from that group, Degrees Initiative co-founder and CEO Andy Parker told CNBC.
The money will go to 81 scientists in Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand and Uganda working on 15 solar geoengineering modeling projects.
The lesser of two bad choices, akin to chemotherapy
Sunlight reflection is getting more attention as scientists have started suggesting that its negative effects may not be as bad as the harm from climate change will be in the future. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is coordinating a five-year research plan into solar geoengineering and in January, the quadrennial U.N.-backed Montreal Protocol assessment report included an entire chapter addressing stratospheric aerosol injection for the first time ever.
"Like anyone else sensible, when I first heard about the idea of blocking out the sun, I thought it was a terrible idea. As time goes by, the view didn't really change it. It's a horrible idea," Parker told CNBC. "But it may prove to be less horrible than not using it and allowing temperatures to keep rising if we don't cut our emissions far enough."
Sunlight reflection is not a solution to climate change or global warming. It is a relatively fast and inexpensive way to temporarily cool the Earth. We know it works: In the 15 months following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, the average global temperature was about 1 degree Fahrenheit lower, according to NASA. Releasing sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere from retrofitted planes would essentially mimic the way a volcano releases large quantities of aerosols into the atmosphere.
"It's not a pleasant idea. It's not a fun thing to work on. But it's potentially important, it could be very, very helpful, it could be disastrous," Parker told CNBC.
"I liken the decision to chemotherapy. Chemotherapy to treat cancer is also a horrible idea. It's very dangerous. It's unpleasant. It's risky. And no one would ever consider doing it unless they feared the alternative might be worse. And so it goes for solar geoengineering," he said.
Before launching The Degrees Initiative, Parker led the production of a 98-page report on geoengineering for The Royal Society, an independent science academy in the United Kingdom, and has done research at Harvard and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany.
Ensuring the most at-risk countries have a say
One of Parker's goals with the Degrees Initiative is to ensure that scientists from developing countries in the global south will be part of international conversations about sunlight reflection, he told CNBC.
"If it can work well to reduce the impacts of climate change, then they've got the most to gain because they're on the frontlines of global warming," he said. "If, on the other hand, it all goes wrong and there are nasty side effects, or perhaps if it's rejected prematurely, when it could have helped, then developing countries have got the most to lose."
But without philanthropic donations, research and decisions about solar geoengineering would be primarily relegated to the parts of the world that can afford it, like North America, the European Union and Japan, Parker said.
The $900,000 announced Tuesday is the second round of funding of this kind. In 2018, The Degrees Modelling Fund distributed $900,000 to 11 projects in Argentina, Bangladesh, Benin, Indonesia, Iran, the Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Kenya, Philippines and South Africa.
The money goes out in grants of up to $75,000, of which $60,000 is for salary and $15,000 is for the tools that a local research team would need, Parker told CNBC. Each scientific team should suggest its own proposal in the application for the grant money, he said. But broadly, the task for each team is to use computer models to predict the weather and their regional impacts — both with and without sunlight reflection.
"By comparing the two, they can start to generate evidence on what the impact of solar radiation modification might be on things that matter locally," Parker said.
Researching the water cycles in La Plata Basin
Ines Camilloni, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, has received two Degrees Initiative grants and is also getting funded by the government of Argentina. With the funding, Camilloni is researching how solar radiation modification would affect the hydroclimate of La Plata Basin, the fifth largest water basin in the world, covering parts of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, she told CNBC.
"A large fraction of the economic activities within the basin relies on water availability, including agriculture, river navigability and hydroelectric production, and therefore any variations in the water cycle of the basin could have significant impacts on the economy of each country," Camilloni told CNBC.
Camilloni says her research has so far showed that sunlight reflection could be helpful to some parts of the La Plata Basin region, but particularly harmful to others. Large rivers that power hydroelectric dams could see higher flows and increased energy production, balanced by a risk of more flooding.
In Buenos Aires, awareness of sunlight reflection has grown in the oast couple years, and it spurs strong emotions.
"The range of feelings that solar radiation modification generates goes from disbelief to fear. Everyone perceives it to be controversial," Camilloni told CNBC.
Clear communication is critical, though, because even research proponents do not see it as a climate change silver bullet.
"This is no one's Plan A for how you deal with climate risk, and whatever happens, we have to cut our emissions," Parker told CNBC. "But people are finally starting to seriously address the question: What do we do if we don't do enough with emissions cuts, if they prove insufficient to avoid very dangerous climate change? What are our options? And that leaves people regretfully, but necessarily, to think about things like solar radiation modification."
Correction: Andy Parker is the co-founder and CEO of The Degrees Initiative. An earlier version didn't attribute some quotes to him.