Reflection (and reflecting sunlight): part and parcel of humanity’s critical infrastructure.

Perhaps calling for reflection? (the Pinatubo eruption of 1991)

“The U.S. solar geoengineering research program should be all about helping society make more informed decisions.” – Christopher Field

Reflection is a uniquely human trait, or nearly so; some might say it is one of our species’ best and most endearing features. That said, our increasingly frenetic and networked 21st-century world has eroded opportunity for reflection and its close relative, contemplation. Take knowledge work of all kinds; today it seems somehow less thoughtful, even as the accelerating, relentless pace of tweeting, meeting, teaching, publishing have made the experience more athletic.

Our current season of pandemic and its enforced isolation has provided eight billion people time and incentive for a bit more reflection than usual. Unsurprisingly, given our dilemma, not all that reflection has been of the most positive sort. It’s been more focused on problems than opportunity.

We tend to see reflection as an individual matter, but groups and institutions can also be reflective. One such was in fact created for that very purpose: the National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).  Chartered by Congress in 1863, initially to advise the nation on urgent scientific matters arising during the Civil War, NASEM has convened groups of scientists throughout the decades since for structured thought on opportunities for science, the implications of science for society, and the policies needed to foster innovation and its beneficial, responsible use.  

One of NASEM’s most recent studies lives up to this tradition: Reflecting Sunlight: Recommendations for Solar Geoengineering Research and Research Governance (2021).Even by the Academies’ high standards and historical record, the report marks an extraordinary accomplishment.

A bit of backstory. In 2015, NASEM produced two landmark studies on geoengineering: Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration, and a companion, Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. At the time, committee members did a thorough job of explaining the science behind these two interventions. They called attention to the unique global stakes associated with such research and its application, emphasizing throughout the need for wise governance at individual, national, and international levels. But they stopped short of recommending specifics in this latter regard, citing its complexity and existential importance. They suggested their committees had not been adequately constituted to address such issues. They hinted at a sequel.

Reflecting Sunlight is the result, and looks to be well worth the wait. A strong group under the leadership of Chris Field details and updates current views of the needed research and development, but goes further, to develop and lay out thoughtfully and in a structured way the principles for governance of such work, at scientific, national, and international levels.

Attempting to reproduce any of the report’s findings here would fail to give the quality and sweep of the effort its due. But whether we are scientists, or policymakers, or concerned laity, Reflecting Sunlight deserves our reflection of the fuller sort, along several lines:

Geoengineering is not new. Solar geoengineering may be only recently arrived on the scene, but from the moment the first reflective species arrived on the planet, Earth could no longer remain “natural” in the sense it had been before. Geoengineering was a foregone conclusion. Agriculture, urbanization, and other altered landscapes and land use; irrigation, and other forms of water redistribution; extraction of ores and fossil fuels from the Earth’s surface and below – all this and more is in the realm of geoengineering. We live on a managed planet; the only choice available ahead is somewhere on the spectrum between effective and dysfunctional engineering.

Existential stakes. The difference is that geoengineering’s origins made a difference only locally or regionally. Today the scale is global. Eight billion of us, and the world’s natural ecosystems, share just one planet. The effects of climate change, already being felt, promise to be dire. Mitigation and adaptation measures are and ought to remain our primary means of coping, but evidence suggests their implementation may prove too little, too late. We urgently need a fuller characterization of the possibilities and limitations of solar geoengineering that might be applied as an emergency, stopgap measure to maintain the planet’s livability until mitigation and adaptation can fully kick in (in much the same way as, say, ICU staff use steroid therapies to stabilize seriously ill covid-19 patients until their own immune systems can take over).

Unique opportunity. The current administration and the Congress are mounting an ambitious critical infrastructure initiative. Encouragingly, this gives significant emphasis to coping with climate change, and to innovation. Hopefully, within the large budget numbers contemplated for science and technology, there will be room to accommodate the $100-200M over five years directed along the lines suggested in this report, while at the same time maintaining and even accelerating mainline climate-change mitigation and adaptation research. An ability to modulate solar reflection is in itself a form of critical infrastructure for the world of the future.

Hope.  The NASEM report doesn’t dwell on this, but hope is implicit throughout. The findings and recommendations lay out pathways to positive outcomes; at no point did the committee find an intractable barrier.

That leaves us with the governance challenge. The report explores in some detail the need for good governance. Lurking behind subjects such as registries, codes of conduct, data sharing, assessment, permitting, international collaboration, etc., etc., are lofty principles, including but by no means limited to notions such as: transparency, broad public and stakeholder participation, fairness, equity, trust, justice. As a species, we have a disappointing track record here. (Fact is, a critic could argue humans have displayed little more mastery of good governance than we have with respect to geoengineering itself.) To succeed, we have to embrace, to an extent we’ve been reluctant to do in the past, the idea that our futures are interdependent, that our self-interest is best realized – only realized – by giving primacy to the public good, the benefit of others.

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A closing reflection. Maybe it’s the timing (this is a year that has seen a renaissance of awareness of systemic racism and other forms of inequity) but when it comes to basic human values, the equations of physical science and the findings of social science seem at best muted, if not entirely silent. We just might need to think outside that particular box. Something to ponder at the end to this Easter-Passover week. So start digging into Reflecting Sunlight. Lift a glass in the direction of Chris Field and his committee, thanking them for their hard work and clear-headed thinking. Reflect on the contribution you can make to the needed good governance as well as the science. In that reflection, you’ll be doing your bit to rebuild society’s most critical infrastructure. You’ll be building back better.

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