Environmental governance expert Sikina Jinnah appointed to Harvard University’s SCoPEx advisory committee

Sikina Jinnah outdoors in front of a tree
Associate Professor Sikina Jinnah

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Sikina Jinnah was recently appointed to an independent advisory committee that will make recommendations regarding the governance of Harvard University’s high-profile SCoPEx research. SCoPEx, short for Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment, is a proposed small-scale particle physics and atmospheric chemistry experiment designed to build understanding of the potential efficacy and risks of stratospheric aerosols relevant to solar geoengineering.

One of the SCoPEx Advisory Committee’s roles is to collect and carefully consider feedback from stakeholders in the process of making recommendations about the future of SCoPEx, including recommendations on whether or not the project should move forward in some capacity. Jinnah will bring her expertise in global environmental governance to these efforts. She has studied participatory processes for governing emerging technologies like solar geoengineering, which have a high degree of uncertainty surrounding their efficacy and impacts. 

“Both the potential risks and the potential benefits from solar geoengineering could be transformative for the planet, so the stakes are incredibly high,” she said. “That makes stakeholder engagement crucially important. Planetary decision-making must be broad and inclusive. We need a model for governing this type of research in a way that’s socially responsible, engages a wide range of stakeholders, and ensures that marginalized voices are appropriately amplified.”

Solar geoengineering is a technology that seeks to cool the planet and offset some impacts of climate change through methods like releasing particles into the air to reflect a small portion of sunlight away from the Earth. SCoPEx is not intended to trigger a climate response, but rather is an effort to collect relevant data to improve the accuracy of models that predict potential future impacts of solar geoengineering. 

Better models could inform global decision-making processes around whether or not these technologies should be developed. But there’s already a great deal of debate around that question, driven in part by uncertainties around what types of unintended harm solar geoengineering could potentially cause. There’s also concern that the perceived promise of these technologies could distract from the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

For these reasons and others, some argue that it’s too risky to undertake any research related to solar geoengineering, including the SCoPEx experiment. An initial test flight related to the project had been scheduled to take place in Sweden in June of 2021, but it was cancelled following strong resistance from some scientists, environmentalists, and the Indigeous Saami people in Sweden. 

Jinnah says governance of research on solar geoengineering will ultimately need to incorporate the needs and insights of stakeholders locally and globally, with particular emphasis on communities that face the greatest risk from climate change impacts.