Geoengineering Responses to Climate Change

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Stratospheric Aerosols for Solar Radiation Management

  • Ben KravitzAffiliated withDepartment of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science Email author 

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SRM in the context of this entry involves placing a large amount of aerosols in the stratosphere to reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the surface, thereby cooling the surface and counteracting some of the warming from anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The way this is accomplished depends on the specific aerosol used, but the basic mechanism involves backscattering and absorbing certain amounts of solar radiation aloft. Since warming from greenhouse gases is due to longwave (thermal) emission, compensating for this warming by reduction of shortwave (solar) energy is inherently imperfect, meaning SRM will have climate effects that are different from the effects of climate change. This will likely manifest in the form of regional inequalities, in that, similarly to climate change, some regions will benefit from SRM, while some will be adversely affected, viewed both in the context of present climate and a climate with high CO2 concentrations. These effects are highly dependent upon the means of SRM, including the type of aerosol to be used, the particle size and other microphysical concerns, and the methods by which the aerosol is placed in the stratosphere. SRM has never been performed, nor has deployment been tested, so the research up to this point has serious gaps. The amount of aerosols required is large enough that SRM would require a major engineering endeavor, although SRM is potentially cheap enough that it could be conducted unilaterally. Methods of governance must be in place before deployment is attempted, should deployment even be desired. Research in public policy, ethics, and economics, as well as many other disciplines, will be essential to the decision-making process. SRM is only a palliative treatment for climate change, and it is best viewed as part of a portfolio of responses, including mitigation, adaptation, and possibly CDR. At most, SRM is insurance against dangerous consequences that are directly due to increased surface air temperatures.