The US government has for the first time authorized funding to research geoengineering, the controversial idea that we could counteract climate change by reflecting heat away from the planet.
The $1.4 trillion spending bills that Congress passed this week included a little noticed provision setting aside at least $4 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct stratospheric monitoring and research efforts. The program includes assessments of “solar climate interventions,” including “proposals to inject material [into the stratosphere] to affect climate.”
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the sweeping appropriations bills on Friday.
In a related move, California Congressman Jerry McNerney on Thursday introduced a bill that would enable NOAA to set up a formal program to carry out this “climate intervention” research.
The full text of the bill isn’t yet available, and McNerney’s office didn’t immediately respond to inquiries from MIT Technology Review. But the primary aims would include improving our basic understanding of stratospheric chemistry, and assessing the potential effects and risks of geoengineering.
It would also grant NOAA oversight authority to review and report on experiments proposed by other research groups, says Kelly Wanser, an advisor on geoengineering research efforts and executive director at SilverLining, who consulted with McNerney’s office on details in the bill.
A growing number of academic research groups are exploring various ways to cool the planet as the threat of climate change grows, including injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere or spraying saltwater into the sky to brighten coastal clouds.
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But there are concerns that using such tools could have dangerous environmental side effects, and that even suggesting them as solutions could ease pressure to cut the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.
In a statement, Rep. McNerney asserts that the federal government should take the lead in this controversial field, noting that other research efforts are already moving forward.
A team of Harvard researchers has been preparing to conduct one of the first outdoor experiments related to geoengineering, by launching a balloon that would spray a small amount of particles into the stratosphere. At least in part because there isn’t a US-government-funded research program in place, Harvard took the unusual step of creating its own advisory committee to ensure that researchers take steps to limit environmental risks, seek outside input, and operate in a transparent way.