Why Everyone Should Forget Solar Radiation Management Exists
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Solar radiation management has been a hot-button issue for years because it has all the features you wouldn’t want to find in a solution. Arguably, it could even be worse than climate change itself. If humanity is going to combat the climate crisis effectively, they may need to forget this method ever existed.
What Is Solar Radiation Management?
Solar radiation management — also known as solar geoengineering or solar radiation modification — minimizes the sun’s energy by scattering, reflecting, or blocking it. There are many different methods for it, although none are common.
Its goal is to prevent as much of the sun’s energy from reaching the planet as possible, artificially cooling the world. Even though it’s a potential method for combating climate change, most researchers, activists, and governments warn against it.
They don’t think it’s a good idea to artificially control the amount of sunlight reaching Earth. In all honesty, they’re completely correct. While it’s technically a viable approach to reduce the effects of climate change, it has far more risks than rewards. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Snowpiercer,” then you understand why so many people are against intentional modifications.
How Does It Work?
Solar radiation management typically involves mirrors, atmospheric injections or chemical modification. Every approach seeks to reduce how much of the sun’s energy stays in Earth’s atmosphere.
Here are a few examples of solar radiation modification technologies:
- Cirrus cloud thinning: Thins clouds to make it easier for solar radiation to escape.
- Ground reflection modification: Modifies the reflectivity of the planet’s surface.
- Marine cloud brightening: Makes clouds over the ocean brighter or more abundant.
- Space reflection modification: Injects fine, reflective particles into the stratosphere.
Each of these examples is supposed to scatter or reflect solar radiation to artificially cool the planet. They seem simple, but most have a massive impact. For instance, a stratospheric injection has a similar effect to a huge volcanic eruption.
Are any Countries Using Solar Radiation Modification?
While many countries have conducted exploratory research on solar radiation modification, none have put it into practice yet. While the process would only cost $100 billion — a small number compared to the $1 trillion price tag of other methods — it may not be worth the trouble.
The buzz around solar geoengineering picked up in 2023 because of a June report from the White House. Even though it only released something because a 2022 congressional mandate required it, it still discussed the method’s potential in depth.
The very possibility of intentional modification on a large scale puts everyone on edge, so you can imagine the outrage that would follow if someone actually took action. Since every country knows how sensitive of an issue it is, they’ve stayed away from taking action so far.
Why Is Using It a Bad Idea?
It’s a bad idea to use solar radiation management because it doesn’t actually do anything to help humanity combat climate change. On top of that, it could potentially even have similar effects. What’s the point of stopping one disaster when the solution could be just as harmful?
Even though it could theoretically help lessen its impact, it doesn’t do anything to address the source of the issue. Furthermore, it can’t tackle some of the most prominent effects of climate change. For instance, it won’t reduce greenhouse gases or ocean acidification. Using it would be like treating a contaminated wound without cleaning it — the infection will keep returning.
Almost all of the scientific studies from 2012 to 2022 agree that solar radiation modification has unknown lasting effects that could be dangerous. It’s not an exact science and has never been done on a large scale before, so there’s no telling what exactly could happen. Potentially, a significant miscalculation could even throw the planet into another ice age.
Additionally, solar geoengineering comes with a wide variety of risks, affecting everything from wildlife to weather. There’s also not much anyone can do to reverse the process once it’s in motion, making it one of the least ideal solutions to climate change.
What Are the Risks of Solar Radiation Management?
Solar radiation management has many risks that could impact plants, animals, and people. Here are some of the main ones.
Since multiple agencies direct climate change policies, artificially managing solar radiation poses social and political risks. On top of international organizations like the United Nations or World Bank, almost every government is involved.
The solar geoengineering technologies spread through the atmosphere — they don’t care about borders. Even if only one country decides to use them, it could affect the entire world. If everyone disagrees on what to do, non-collective action could start international conflicts.
Solar radiation management would likely dramatically impact the weather. For instance, altering the abundance and structure of clouds changes precipitation patterns. Rain could fall in different places, causing floods, mudslides, and drought. Alternatively, uneven usage impacts the planet’s atmospheric circulation, changing how storms and temperatures move.
Modifying solar radiation artificially can change other weather patterns because it cools the planet in certain spots. For example, hurricanes and tornadoes can come from two significantly different temperatures colliding. Additionally, it could increase the frequency of snowstorms.
Artificially modifying solar radiation can cause sudden, dramatic adjustments to ecosystems, harming wildlife. Plants and animals can’t rapidly evolve to handle low temperatures and drastic weather changes, making them highly vulnerable.
On top of changing wildlife’s daily routines, solar radiation modification would impact their migration patterns. It could cause a tremendous domino effect, shifting species’ habitats or causing their decline. Endangered ones could even face extinction in extreme cases.
Some of the atmospheric methods for solar radiation modification negatively impact health. For example, sulfur dioxide dispersal is harmful to humans and wildlife. If countries aren’t careful, they could do more harm than good.
Additionally, some management technologies change how the sky looks. Unfortunately, modifying the solar radiation level with atmospheric aerosols could even give the sky an eerie white hue — it would be especially visible during sunset or sunrise.
The Cold Truth
Solar radiation management isn’t the best climate change prevention method at anyone’s disposal. Instead of fixing anything, it does an equal amount of harm to the planet while giving humanity an excuse to ignore core issues. Countries would be wise to only consider it at a last resort.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.