UC Santa Cruz expert helps to weigh costs and benefits of controversial research on a high-risk technology to fight climate change

Professional portrait of Sikina Jinnah
Environmental Studies Professor Sikina Jinnah. Photo: Carolyn Lagattuta

Environmental Studies Professor Sikina Jinnah recently wrapped up almost three years of work co-chairing Harvard University’s SCoPEX Advisory Committee, one of the world’s first efforts to design and implement a governance framework for an outdoor solar geoengineering experiment. 

The panel’s final report details a new governance framework that applies theory to practice in ways that could help researchers around the world to make more responsible and community-informed decisions about if and how any future experiments might proceed within this highly controversial realm of research. And since the SCoPEX experiment itself was recently canceled for a variety of reasons, the advisory committee’s work may prove to be the project’s most enduring legacy.

“This experiment was proposed in a governance desert,” Jinnah said. “The framework that we’ve created now provides a concrete structure for how to evaluate this type of research in the future and facilitate quicker and more effective governance of any future experiments. Importantly, the framework includes societal engagement guidelines for how scientists should engage with communities with interests in their work.” 

Solar geoengineering is a technology that seeks to temporarily cool the planet and thereby offset some impacts of climate change, through methods like releasing particles into the stratosphere to reflect a small portion of sunlight away from the Earth. It’s a relatively simple and potentially cost-effective technology that might be able to quickly lower global temperatures while the world aggressively ramps up reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Solar geoengineering could temporarily avert serious impacts from human-caused global warming, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations. But, it could also backfire spectacularly. 

Solar geoengineering would discolor the sky and could disrupt rainfall patterns, but perhaps more importantly, many worry that it might distract from the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This would lead to continued harmful buildup of emissions that would increase the acidity of the ocean and, if solar geoengineering efforts were to suddenly stop or fail, could cause even faster catastrophic warming.

For these reasons and others, some argue that it’s too risky to undertake any research related to solar geoengineering. Others argue that, based on the projected impacts from our current rate of unchecked global warming, it’s too risky not to consider it. Harvard’s Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEX) became the center of this debate in recent years, since it was one of the first proposed outdoor experiments to study the potential efficacy and risks of reflective stratospheric aerosol particles relevant to solar geoengineering. 

The role of the SCoPEX Advisory Committee was to advise Harvard’s Vice Provost for Research on if or under what conditions the experiment should proceed, based on the committee’s independent assessment of the experiment’s scientific quality and importance, risks associated with the proposed research, effectiveness of risk management, and stakeholder engagement considerations. Jinnah, who co-chaired the committee for nearly two years, was asked to join in 2021, for her expertise in global environmental governance and societal engagement. 

“I would love to live in a world where we didn't have to consider technologies like solar geoengineering,” Jinnah said. “But the people who have contributed least to the problem of climate change are going to suffer most and are already experiencing dramatic impacts, so unfortunately, I think we have a moral responsibility to consider it. And because of the conflict between that moral obligation and the potentially massive risks of this technology, there must be a governance framework wrapped around it in order to explore it in a responsible way.”

Over the course of their work, the committee developed reports and recommendations on engineering and safety, finances, legal issues, scientific merit, and societal engagement related to the project and developed new processes for how to evaluate and deliberate on these issues. For Jinnah and some others on the committee, societal engagement in particular would have needed further development in order to recommend that the project could proceed. 

The committee put together guidelines for how to produce and implement a societal engagement plan that were based our four core pillars: starting engagement efforts as early as possible, including social scientists with engagement expertise on research teams during the research design process, not presupposing what communities will be concerned about, and developing a plan that’s responsive to community concern. 

The panel’s final report includes specific process recommendations for societal engagement, including what public information resources to develop, how to facilitate dialogue at the local and global level, where to bring in local partners and outside experts, and how to incorporate resulting community input into the decision-making process for project approvals. 

“In the context of emerging tech development like this, societal engagement looks different at different stages of a project,” Jinnah explained. “In the beginning, it’s getting people familiar with the idea of your project and seeking initial feedback, then, as the science develops and you get closer to the possibility of an outdoor experiment, the nature of that engagement becomes more iterative and co-constitutive with communities who are impacted.”

Jinnah and the committee hope that any researchers interested in future solar geoengineering experiments can learn lessons from the SCoPEX Advisory Committee’s final report about how to conduct societal engagement in an effective and equitable manner. This guidance will be crucial, because interest in solar geoengineering is unlikely to go away, unless there are major changes in the pace at which nations around the world are reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“I've been working on climate change governance for more than two decades now and have been watching this very incremental pace of progress, with two steps forward, and one step back,” Jinnah said. “There has been some really important progress at the subnational level, but in terms of moving climate response forward globally, unfortunately, we are not even close to making sufficient progress.”