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How to think about solar radiation management
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How to think about solar radiation management
A conversation with Kelly Wanser of SilverLining.
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Even if greenhouse gas emissions halted entirely right now, we would continue to feel climate change effects for decades due to existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — and warming could accelerate, as we reduce the aerosol pollution that happens to be acting as a partial shield. In this episode, Kelly Wanser of nonprofit SilverLining makes the pitch for solar radiation management, the practice of adding our own shielding particles to the atmosphere to buy us some time while we step up our greenhouse gas reductions.

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Text transcript:

David Roberts

One of the more uncomfortable truths about climate change is that temperatures are going to rise for the next 30 to 40 years no matter what we do, just based on carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and the reduction of aerosol pollutants that are now shielding us from some of the worst of it. That's going to bring about potentially devastating changes that we do not yet well understand and are not prepared for.

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How can that short-term risk be mitigated? One proposal is to add particles to the atmosphere that would do on purpose what our aerosol pollution has been doing by accident: shield us from some of the rising heat. No one credible who advocates for solar radiation management (SRM) believes that it is a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, it would be a way to buy a little more time to reach zero carbon.

Kelly Wanser
Kelly Wanser

My guest today, Kelly Wanser, is the head of a non-profit organization called SilverLining that advocates for research and policy around near-term climate risks and direct climate interventions like SRM that can address them.

I've long been curious about — and wary of — solar radiation management, so I was eager to talk to Wanser about the case for SRM, what we know and don't know about it, and what we need to research.

Okay then. Kelly Wanser of SilverLining, welcome to Volts. Thank you so much for coming.

Kelly Wanser

Thank you very much, David. I am a fan and it's a pleasure to be here.

David Roberts

Awesome. Well, I have wanted to do a pod on this subject forever. I'm going to try to be focused, but I sort of have questions that are all over the place, so let's just jump right in. The way I'm approaching this is, I think, to average people off the street, and maybe I even include myself in this. The idea of reaching up into the atmosphere and fiddling with it directly, thinking that we can dial in the temperature we want, strikes me as crazy. And I think that's probably a lot of people's intuitive response. Obviously, you have thought your way past that, going so far as to found an organization designed to advocate for this stuff.

So maybe just tell us a little, to begin with, your personal background and how you came to advocacy for geoengineering, which is not a super crowded field.

Kelly Wanser

I'll say first that you're actually not in the business of advocacy for geoengineering and it will give you some context for how I came to be doing what I do.

David Roberts

Sure.

Kelly Wanser

Really it was about — I was working in the technology sector in an area called IT infrastructure, and that's the sort of plumbing of data in the Internet and was looking at problems like how you keep networks operating. And I started to read about climate change, and I was very curious about the symptoms that we were starting to see in the climate system and where the risk really was. And I started to get to know various senior climate scientists in the Bay Area and other places, and I asked them the question like you might ask, how would you characterize the risk of runaway climate change in our lifetime? And this is maybe twelve years ago.

And they said, "Well, it's in the single digits, but not the low single digits."

David Roberts

Not super comforting.

Kelly Wanser

Yeah, I mean, my original degree was economics, so I thought, well, if you had those odds of winning the lottery, you'd be out buying tickets. If you had those odds of cancer, you'd be getting treatment. So that seemed like a really high risk to be exposed to. And then they told me about another feature of what was happening in that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time, keeping things warm. Comes out very slowly. So even if you stop emissions completely and there are other dynamics going on, the system will continue to warm for a while.

And so you've got another few decades of warming. So wherever you are and whatever you see, you've got some additional warming that's going to happen, which means that whatever risk point you're at, you reach a higher risk point over that period of time. And so I became very interested in that problem, because there's a mismatch between the increased risk profile of really serious and catastrophic climate events and impacts and the kinds of responses that we had to reduce the risk. So really my organization is focused on what we call "near-term climate risk," which is the 30 to 40 year time horizon where the things we need to do to ultimately fix the problem, all the ways we reduce greenhouse gases in the system, they don't work in that time horizon to meaningfully reduce the risk.

And so that's how we find ourselves here. Because getting back to your original comment, in the absence of the kind of risk situation that we're in, these ideas would be really extreme and you wouldn't consider them. So we like to use the sort of metaphor of medicine because it has many similarities to medical treatments. And medical treatments require a lot of research and they're as useful as the context of where your condition is.

David Roberts

Right. So maybe the way to phrase this is you looked around, you saw climate change, you saw that our ways of mitigating climate change are sort of slow, if you will, slow acting and long term, which leaves this short-term risk gap.

Kelly Wanser

Right.

David Roberts

So there's going to be warming over the next 30 to 40 years, regardless almost of what we do. And you're focused on how to mitigate those risks.

Kelly Wanser

Yeah. So related to that, and again, you can go to the United Nations Climate Reports, and you can see what they think is happening and going to happen they have these charts that show these curves. And the curves go up all the pathways, all the different scenarios for climate change going up through 2050, some of them bend back down because we've done a good job. But in their reports where they describe that they're projecting what's happening to people and different parts of the world over those 30 years. And right now they've come out and said, well, under their projections, as many as 1 billion people get displaced.

And you can go to websites that have simulations of what's going on and you can see places that get overwhelmed by water, that get overwhelmed by heat. And so you've got a lot of suffering, a lot of dramatic impact that's baked in. And so what we are saying is we need to do really rapid research to find out if we can do better than that. Because in the current projections, it's bad for everyone and it's terrible for quite a few people.

David Roberts

Yes, two things spring to mind confronted with that situation. One is a lot of people looking at that would say, "Well, we need to go gangbusters on adaptation." Let's figure out how to make that suffering less by adapting to some of it. And the other thing that jumps to mind is methane, which, as Volts listeners know, is a greenhouse gas, but acts on a much shorter time horizon than CO2. And so I think that the thought in some quarters is if you could rapidly reduce methane, you could have a much more rapid effect on the climate than in reducing CO2.

Why not either of those two routes?

Kelly Wanser

So, also those two routes. I think one of the things that struck me about coming into the climate space was it wasn't very well-equipped to think in terms of portfolios. So if you look at the risk profile, it's sort of like we're having these debates about should it be wind and solar, or nuclear? Should it be emissions reductions or these things? But if you look at the risk and uncertainty involved, there's a lot of uncertainty involved in all the different ways of responding to climate change. And there's a huge amount of risk, potentially existential risk.

And so from a portfolio perspective, methane reduction is one of my absolute favorites. And there are some great things happening in that field. Adaptation is a harder problem, and it was made harder because people didn't want it in the portfolio 20 years ago. And they didn't want people to think it was adoptable. So they didn't want people looking at it. Well, it turns out when you look at it, you find out it's not easily adoptable, really. You can see, like, look at Pakistan. These big extreme events happen. They're pretty overwhelming. And even in the US, we're arguably one of the best equipped places in the world to manage these things, and Austin, Texas, had a third of the city with no power.

David Roberts

Yeah, we managed to bungle it regularly, even with all our money.

Kelly Wanser

But really what it was about is saying, okay, we should have a rich portfolio here. If you thought of this as like, shares, or you thought of this as insurance policies, we'd have a portfolio of things so that when you brought that portfolio together and those things that are different profiles and there are different levels of uncertainty, we have a lot of coverage.

David Roberts

Right?

Kelly Wanser

And the problem is that this part of the portfolio, if you needed to arrest climate change quickly, if you really needed to get in there and say, oh, the ice sheet is about to go. The wet bulb effects in India are happening and we can't take it. And you needed something that operated in a sub-decade time horizon, then that's the key part of the portfolio that's empty. And we don't want to do those things. But from a risk management point of view, in terms of what's at stake, even evaluating whether we have them, that's something on deck that we really should be doing.

David Roberts

And one more thing about the risk question, the short-term risk question, and I feel like maybe more climate types have grown cognizant of this recently, but it's really an under-discussed aspect of all this, is the aerosol effect. So maybe just tell us what it is and why that adds to these worries about short-term risk.

Kelly Wanser

That is a great question, because as I was digging into this and finding out the things I'm telling you, this came up effectively. There are forces in the atmosphere that trap heat and help keep us in this sort of temperate zone that we're in. And there are forces in the atmosphere that reflect energy away. And so the particles and clouds in the atmosphere, they're reflecting sunlight away from Earth, which is part of what keeps us in this Goldilocks zone. When you look at the Earth from space and you see that shiny blue dot, that's what that is.

And these particles that come into the atmosphere, they create clouds, they live in the atmosphere. They're part of that whole system, and they come from nature, but they also live in pollution. And the particulates in pollution that come from coal plants, that come from ships over the ocean, they are mixing with clouds that are living in the atmosphere in ways that make the atmosphere slightly brighter. And it's this effect that scientists have reported is cooling the planet currently by reflecting sunlight back to space. And they don't know exactly by how much, but they think it's between a half a degree Celsius and 1.1 degrees Celsius.

David Roberts

That's not small.

Kelly Wanser

No, it's not small. It could be offsetting half the warming that the gasses would otherwise be making.

David Roberts

Yeah. Just to sum that up. So our particulate pollution to date has had the sort of perverse effect of reflecting away a bunch of solar radiation with the consequent problem that insofar as we clean up our pollution, which we are striving to do, we are going to lose that cooling effect and maybe get another one whole degree of warming which would double...

Kelly Wanser

That's right.

David Roberts

...our warming since preindustrial times. So that's a little wild.

Kelly Wanser

I was just going to say it's right there in the climate reports. And it's been there consistently, but not prominently noted, not highlighted in the sort of climate discussion. And so it's surfacing more now recently, that this was there. And we're getting very good at cleaning up pollution. One of the features of this problem is that in climate reports, when they show these effects, they'll have bar charts that show the different effects on the climate system. And they have these lines that show how much uncertainty there is. This is the most uncertain thing about the climate system.

And that uncertainty has been unchanged for 20 years. We have not been able to improve our understanding of that. And so when we in SilverLining are talking about our advocacy, we're saying we need to improve our information base, we need to quickly improve our ability to do that problem. That problem happens to be the same or very similar to the problem of what if I want to achieve this effect actively. So we think it's kind of a no brainer for society to say we need to go after that problem really hard, like the human genome, and understand what's going to happen when we take the pollution away.

And is there a cleaner, more controlled version of this that might help?

David Roberts

Right, yeah, I'm going to get some of those questions in a minute. So the aerosol effect is you have these particles up there now which talk about geoengineering. We've been geoengineering the climate ever since industrialization by throwing all these particles up, which are shielding us. So, in effect, as we clean up our particulate pollution, we are pushing the target for climate change farther and farther away. In other words, we're making a longer and longer runway for ourselves. So in addition to advocating for research, which we'll get to in a minute, it looks like your organization has because the term geoengineering, I think, as people think of it now, brings to mind all sorts of various and sundry schemes in the ocean and crumbling rocks and there's all these different notions.

But it seems like you all have settled more or less. Your main focus is on solar radiation management, SRM, which is just replacing the particles that we're taking out of the atmosphere with new particles to continue enjoying that cooling effect. Why focus in on that one rather than the others? Is there a reason to think it is the most out of all the geoengineering schemes? Why focus on this one?

Kelly Wanser

Well, we, we don't use the term "geoengineering." We don't use the term "scheme." But I will answer your question.

David Roberts

I know, I noticed that you carefully say "climate interventions" rather than "geoengineering."

Kelly Wanser

Yeah, "climate intervention" was a term the National Academy of Sciences coined in their 2015 report. And it's useful because, like you said, "geoengineering" kind of evokes the most engineering-oriented stuff, engineers in space, and there's really not a lot of engineering involved. There's a lot of science involved, and it's directed at climate. And intervention is a really good term because it's so similar characteristics to a medical type intervention. Engineering has a lot of certainty. Like, if I can do the math, I can engineer a bridge. An intervention has a lot of uncertainty and a lot of trade-offs, depending on where the patient is.

So this looks a little more like that. But to your question, we are a science-based, science-driven organization, so we follow what the scientists recommend. And so we didn't arrive at this conclusion ourselves. We took what the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society in the United Kingdom said. They'd done a couple of assessments where they gathered scientific experts together and asked the same question and if you wanted to reduce warming in the climate system quickly, what are the best candidates for research? And so they landed on this because there's a lot of precedent for this effect in the atmosphere.

So in addition to what pollution is causing, they've seen this effect when large volcanoes go off and release material into the outer layer of the atmosphere, the stratosphere. And they've seen that cool the climate system globally. So when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, they observed about a half a degree Celsius of cooling for about a year and a half. So when people talk about all these things are terrible. Well, most of us who are 25 or older experienced this already when Mount Pinatubo went off and we didn't notice the sky was different. So we've actually lived it a little bit already.

David Roberts

In a sense, we know it works, or at least we know the physical effect is somewhat predictable.

Kelly Wanser

Again, I'm going to go back to the medical analogy because it's so similar. There are differences in efficacy and side effect profiles based on what we know today. And the reason we want to do research is to understand the efficacy and side effects better.

David Roberts

Right.

Kelly Wanser

And so in the outer layer of the atmosphere, they feel like they know a lot more about the efficacy because the stratosphere is very uniform. They've seen it with volcanoes. And so you can get a pretty good grasp, although they're finding just as early research is going on, there are pretty big differences, maybe in how you do it as to what happens. And you certainly don't want to do it like volcanoes do.

David Roberts

Why not, just out of curiosity?

Kelly Wanser

Like all at once big bursts. So it turns out that doing it from — most volcanoes are around the equatorial regions, which for some of what they're finding is like the worst place to do it and that you wouldn't do it like in one giant burst all at once. And of course, volcanoes include a lot of stuff that you wouldn't put in there that is...

David Roberts

Right.

Kelly Wanser

So what we know, or have some handle on, is that in that kind of a burst where there's material in the stratosphere for a year or two and it gradually falls out. We kind of know a bit about what the side effect profile is of that a bit. And I should say we don't know that much about the chemistry effects and the ozone layer and things like that because our measurements aren't very good. But the thing we really need to think about is, okay, if you needed to do this for a couple of decades of 20, 30, 40 years, and it's got a side effect profile in different parts of the system, maybe it's heating up the stratosphere a little bit.

And that gets to a point where you have big changes in circulation or other things. That's what they don't know.

David Roberts

It occurs to me that we've gotten this far in without ever actually really saying what we're talking about. So just for listeners who might be confused, the idea here is to deliberately inject a bunch of these particles, sulfur particles, into the atmosphere to basically do on purpose what our pollution is doing by accident reflect light away. And there are a couple of different versions of this, even if you just focus in on this is called solar radiation management. I don't know if that's the term you all use.

Kelly Wanser

Yup.

David Roberts

There's a couple of different versions even of that. So maybe just discuss like what are we concretely talking about doing? There's different layers of the atmosphere, there's different methods of throwing things up, maybe give us a sense of what it looks like in practice.

Kelly Wanser

So there's the idea that would sort of be lifting off from what they've seen with volcanoes, which is dispersing particles into the upper atmosphere, this stratosphere probably via aircraft and possibly with selected places that they're releasing the material based on what they're learning and models about what produces the best efficacy with the least side effects. And that this would probably happen in a continuous way with planes flying continuously, releasing stuff. And the net effect that they're trying to produce is about a 1% increase in the amount of sunlight the stratosphere reflects. So it's not something that you see from the ground.

It's not something that would be noticeable except for maybe certain changes in light to certain types of plants, things like that. And that would be the idea.

David Roberts

One question about that, the stratosphere you said is pretty uniform. Would interventions on that level have a uniform effect around the world or would they be localized?

Kelly Wanser

It's far more uniform. The particles get entrained in really high winds up there and disperse globally. And so you get a global effect. You might have some differentiation in how that plays out down below in weather patterns and things. And that's what people want to study. And because it's not simple, it's a really complicated system. And one of the concerns scientists have is that like reflecting sunlight up there, you're slightly heating the stratosphere and that can affect its interactions with the atmosphere below it. It can affect the way chemicals play out in the stratosphere in a way that affects the ozone layer.

And so all of those things, again, if you're really good to think about medicine, it's like oh, how does it interact with that part of the body? There are medications. So there it's really about trying to project forward, trying to figure out what is the optimized way to do this, where you get the highest efficacy and the best safety.

David Roberts

And isn't there also a whole other genre of this that has to do with clouds putting the particles in lower clouds?

Kelly Wanser

Great question. Yes, there is. And the particles that they're talking about putting in the clouds are different, too.

David Roberts

Different than the stratospheric particles.

Kelly Wanser

That's right. So in the stratosphere, their starting point is sulfur dioxide, which is like worse than pollution. And they know the most about that because it's what volcanoes put up there. Aircraft pollution is starting to waft up there too. But they're also looking at other things in the stratosphere, like calcium carbonate, which is chalk, like chalk dust.

David Roberts

Interesting.

Kelly Wanser

And even diamond dust. So those are the kind of the two other methods.

David Roberts

And the idea here is trying to maximize reflectivity while minimizing, presumably other...

Kelly Wanser

That's right.

David Roberts

Everything else.

Kelly Wanser

And in this case, especially thinking about the ozone layer. And that's important, obviously. And in fact, in the international arena, in the UN, where they've done probably the most scientific evaluation of these things to date is in the part of the UN that looks after the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol. So they're thinking forward about that. And that's the issues in the upper atmosphere, in the low cloud layer. So we have lots of particles going up into clouds all the time, especially over land. The less polluted clouds are over the ocean, although you can see and if anyone listening to the podcast, if you Google Ship track it'll pull up pictures of cloud decks over the ocean and you can see these streaks and the clouds that are made by the emissions of ships.

And so that's like the ship particulates from the ship pollution brightening the clouds and you can see it visibly where it's really concentrated, but it's also spreading in ways that you don't see visually. So the idea here is, well, could we use a cleaner material and really optimize the effect? And it turns out one of the very best materials for doing this with is one of the materials that's part of making clouds over the ocean, which is sea salt. Sea salt spray from ocean water. And so what scientists proposed two British scientists back in the 90s was, well, maybe you could make a really optimized mist from sea spray spray it from ships in a continuous way and brighten the kinds of clouds that are really susceptible to this, and do it in more localized areas where you get a big bang for the buck.

And so you still offset a couple of degrees of warming, but you're only dispersing over like something equivalent to three to 4% of the ocean surface.

David Roberts

Interesting. And this would also have a uniform global effect because it seems much tighter area, lower clouds. It just seems intuitively, like that ought to be more of a local effect. Does that also end up spreading?

Kelly Wanser

Your intuition is correct. It is localized. And the side effects that you're most interested in is what does that do? Because you are creating concentrated areas of cooling in the system and these are all the mechanisms by which weather and atmosphere move around. So it's almost certainly likely to affect weather flows and patterns. And the thing you would be trying to learn then is are there ways for that to work in your favor and are there ways for that to be really bad? And so I'll give you two examples. And one of the reasons we're such strong advocates for research is because these kinds of questions really shine a light on where our climate models and our climate observations are weak.

So to answer these questions, you've got to really improve doing that uncertainty problem and also getting better at weather circulation. But in the very early models which we helped fund to try to represent these things, one of the possibilities that arose is that when they simulate brightening clouds over the Southern Ocean, which is one of the places that you might do it. You get these cooling currents because it cools the water below in the air in the low layer that flow onto Antarctica. And so you got this improvement in kind of an outsized cooling of Antarctica, which is a useful thing potentially.

But on the reverse side, in another targeted area of clouds, when they cooled that region, they affected weather patterns such that you got dryness in the Amazon forest region, which is a very bad thing to have.

David Roberts

Yeah.

Kelly Wanser

So in the moral to this story is that these are just very early bottle based simulations that tell you you have these kinds of questions and that it's probably given the state of the risk that we have, and given that it's one of the top two candidates, and given that studying it will help us understand what the pollution problem is going to do. Really important to study, but really hard to say for sure whether or how you should use it.

David Roberts

So these two versions of SRM, solar radiation management, the injecting particles in the stratosphere and then the cloud brightening, are those the sort of two main, most viable sort of targets for research. Like when people think about SRM, are those the kind of the two things that should come to mind?

Kelly Wanser

They are from scientific assessments and from senior scientists. There's a third one that's sort of like a tier below because it's even more uncertain than the low cloud brightening, but it is something that is already occurring. And this is in the high cloud layer. So between the stratosphere and the lower atmosphere. So the upper troposphere where you get to when you're cruising altitude on a long flight, 30,000 feet, depending on the circumstances, when you put pollution particles or similar into these high clouds, you can have the effect of either thickening them or thinning them, depending on the conditions.

And those clouds are insulating clouds, so they keep heat trapped in. Infrared radiation trapped in. So if you put particles in them in the right circumstances, you could thin them.

David Roberts

Let more heat out.

Kelly Wanser

Let more heat out. And this phenomenon is happening from air traffic, from airplanes, and we don't know enough about it.

David Roberts

Well, I have a bunch of questions about governance and moral hazard and all this, but first let's just briefly touch on the main subject of your latest report, which is just research, advocating for research. I come into this sort of like leery about doing things like this that we know so little about. But when I got into sort of reading about the kind of research we need, what's sort of remarkable is probably like two thirds of the research you're advocating is not even directly on doing these things. It's just understanding what's in the atmosphere right now, like what are the risks of short term rapid changes now?

Just very basic climate science stuff that you would think we would already be researching. I think even sort of the most committed opponent of these schemes would agree that it's crazy how little we know about this whole area of study. So maybe just like talk about what when you advocate for research, just talk about sort of the basics of what you're advocating for here. I mean, I think people will be a little bit shocked that some of this stuff doesn't already exist.

Kelly Wanser

Well, thank you for that. You're exactly right because I think we were shocked not coming from this field and just kind of looking at it as an information problem. And the problem you want to do is you want to be able to project and evaluate the risk of what the climate system is going to do. So I'd really like to know, be able to project with some confidence how the Earth system is going to respond to this warming over the next 30 years and then what it would look like if you change the things that are influencing it, either in the warming direction, the greenhouse gases, or in the cooling direction, what scientists call aerosols.

These particles. So we're coming at it saying, "Okay, we just want to help set us up to do that problem and evaluate what it looks like if you are introducing aerosols in different ways and how does that improve or not, like the risk profile of what's happening." And so then we bump into these gaps and what the problems that we can't do in the models and a lot of them center right in the atmosphere, that the models don't represent all the phenomenon that are happening in the atmosphere very well and that we don't have the observations that we need to improve them.

David Roberts

It's like insane. It's like five, six decades now. Of talk about climate change and talk about all this, but we still on some very basic levels are just not watching what's happening in the atmosphere.

Kelly Wanser

I think people assume that it's like, hey, we've got this, right? And you hear there are these satellites and you hear the scientific studies coming out that are projecting what climate is going to do. We have satellites looking at everything. And then you sort of dig under the hood and that's where solar radiation management just has an analysis problem. Because what some of the scientists in our circles have said is people want a higher standard of evidence for this. So they're saying, well, you need to be able to tell us what will happen and what the impacts will be.

And we shouldn't be having that standard of evidence for what greenhouse gas is doing and what these other aerosols are doing, but we haven't. And so we get in there and say, okay, if you really want to do this problem, here's what you need. So to give you example for the very top candidate for this is putting particles in the stratosphere. And so if you want to project what will happen, you first need a baseline of what's in the stratosphere. And it turns out we don't have that. We can't characterize what's in the stratosphere currently. So then it's very hard to do that problem.

And so the first thing that we did when we started talking to members of congress and working with NOAA is just to say we have this problem of having a baseline of what's there, which is a really important problem to solve. If you want to know if somebody else is adding material to the stratosphere, if you want to know what it will do, and so that was our starting point. And it's similar kinds of things now, where even in the low cogler, we're working on a program to put instruments on ships like the current ships that travel, that would just be taking atmospheric readings of that low atmosphere so that you would have a baseline and you'd be able to help the models and even the satellites interpret what's going on.

David Roberts

Right. So just gathering more data about what's actually in the atmosphere. So we have a baseline, because one thing the report emphasizes over and over again is that it doesn't really make sense to talk about the risk of doing these things in isolation. It's always, what is the risk of this intervention versus the risk of not doing this intervention? What are the risks we're facing as a baseline against which we are measuring the risks of this intervention? And we just don't know. That's what's wild to me. We just don't know what the current risks are. So there's no way to make an informed risk judgment because you don't know the differential.

Kelly Wanser

That's right. And we haven't really invested in it, which is another quite eye-popping reality.

David Roberts

It's wild.

Kelly Wanser

Like, globally and in the United States, climate research investments have been relatively flat for decades.

David Roberts

That is wild to me. I know. Every time I read that, I read that statistic periodically, and every time I run across it, I'm shocked all over again. Like, all this talk, all this international action, all this agita and angst, and we're not spending any more on climate research than we were two decades ago.

Kelly Wanser

This really baffled me. Coming into this, I didn't understand it, and I sort of learned there was quite a long period of time where there was an orientation that I'm kind of sympathetic to, which was, we know what we need to know. We need to reduce emissions. And so if you think about it as like two sides of an equation, and you look at the reduced emissions side of that equation, and you just focus everything on that, and you say, don't spend your energy on figuring out what's going to happen if it gets warmer, because we're not going to let it get warmer.

And really, that combined with a lot of other pressures on climate science, climate science has been in lockdown mode. I can still remember, like ten or twelve years ago. It's brutal.

David Roberts

Under siege, yes.

Kelly Wanser

Terrifying. But now we're seeing these extremes, and we've had a flat level of investment. And inside that flat level of investment in climate research, in the part that looks directly at the atmospheric observation of atmospheric basic science has actually declined in real terms.

David Roberts

Oh, my God, that is mind-boggling.

Kelly Wanser

It's heartbreaking. And that's the fulcrum for everything we need to know about what's happening and how we evaluate what we're going to do. So the good thing is it represents an opportunity if we can improve it. And I'll just finish by saying climate research investments in the United States are about three and a half billion a year, and that's everything on that side of the equation. And if you compare that to the 55 billion we spent on the three most recent storms.

David Roberts

Yes.

Kelly Wanser

And even the big money that's gone into these other programs, what we're saying is, hey, to invest an additional 60 or 70% in that bring it up to 5 and a half, 6 billion a year, that seems reasonable.

David Roberts

I really encourage listeners to go look at the report because the details of what kinds of research are needed are, like, I keep saying, sort of eye-popping because over and over again you're going to read something and be like, wait, we're not doing that already. We're not looking at that already. We're not measuring that already. That's not included in the models already. A lot of the research recommendations are just like stuff we should obviously be doing. Regardless of what you think about these direct interventions, only when we have a better understanding of these short-term climate effects can we even coherently compare what would happen if we did these interventions right.

We have a baseline against which to compare, and the details of some of that research are really interesting. But just sort of to wrap up the research part, let's just talk about that price tag so we can get a sense of the of the scale. You want to double from 3.3 billion to 6.3 or something like that, but just, you know, like I hate to be a cliche, but like, compare this to how much we spend on defense research or like pharmaceutical research or like dog food research. It's it's, you know, concretely, what price tag are you asking for?

And sort of like, where basically would that money go?

Kelly Wanser

Well, so concretely, we're asking for an additional 2.6 billion a year on top of approximately 3.5 billion. So it's less than double. And it spread across kind of the modeling and analysis of scientific workforce side of it, across observational platforms, which are the most expensive piece. So you need the airplanes that fly through the atmosphere to take readings. You need stuff on the ocean at the surface. And shockingly, the satellites that actually can look at aerosol particles in the atmosphere. They're aging out and there are no plans to replace them. Yeah.

David Roberts

So we're going to know less about aerosols.

Kelly Wanser

We're going to know less soon.

David Roberts

That seems like the wrong direction,

Kelly Wanser

So the investment in those platforms. And here's the other hold your gut thing. The US supplies most of the world's data. So if we don't do it in the US, we can't count on it coming in. There are some European programs, but the US is the biggest provider of this information.

David Roberts

Yikes. It just seems like how is it in the UN, all this sort of like, poorer and more vulnerable countries organize and they want money in the Green Fund and all this. How is it like they are the ones who are most directly at risk in this 30 to 40 year time horizon in some very direct and scary ways. Why aren't they advocating for research? Like, what's going on?

Kelly Wanser

Well, they have a lot of fish to fry, huge amount of sympathy because they're getting pummeled by the impacts and they're not getting the money they were promised to deal with the impacts or the transition. And what's striking is many of them are still ahead of the developed countries in transitioning away from fossil fuels. You take a country like Honduras, they're over accomplishing against their commitment and they're like the second or third most impacted country by climate change. Like half the country is going to disappear in the period I'm talking about. And so a lot of these countries are really impressive in how they're trying to deal with this, but they don't have good visibility of these research problems because they don't have the assets to do this problem at all.

David Roberts

Right,

Kelly Wanser

And so that gets into where you talk about the climate system is so big and so complicated that you need very high tech resources like massive supercomputers satellites, stratospheric capable aircraft that only a handful of countries actually have.

David Roberts

Yeah, I guess one additional note about the research to emphasize is just and you have a whole piece about this in the report. It's just the people from these vulnerable countries who are now more or less locked out of this research by the high sort of capital costs of it need to be brought in, right. This cannot be another sort of white dudes around a conference table undertaking. Their interests are most directly involved and they need to be involved in the research. That's just to put a pin in that.

Kelly Wanser

I'll say one more thing, and I'll give a plug to our partner at Amazon, because we care about that problem a lot and there are ways that technology can help. And so with regard to giving access quickly, getting the climate models and data sets onto the cloud, out of these big supercomputing, one off facilities and onto the cloud where people in different parts of the world can access them, has a huge potential to benefit. Takes a bit of technical work, it takes some money. But then they have supercomputing too. They have climate models, they have the data sets too.

And so we're working on this very actively right now. It's like Netflix. It's like how do we bring it to the world? And if you want those people to be able to do these problems of what is climate change going to do in my part of the world? And then what would these interventions do? You need things like that and you need them pretty fast.

David Roberts

Right. Most research, yeah, you notice of the little there has been, has been focused mostly on developed countries because that's just where the researchers tend to be.

Kelly Wanser

That's right.

David Roberts

There are huge justice implications to both these interventions. And just to emphasize again, to not doing these interventions, to not doing anything, both those have enormous justice implications which need to be centered. So yeah, if I could just sort of summarize the research bit. The part that struck me is just how much of this research seems like it ought to be happening anyway. It is uncontroversial. It's crazy that we're not doing it regardless of whether we decide or want to intervene directly or not. Understanding the short-term dynamics of the climate and the risk of tipping points and the dynamics of aerosols and all these things, we're just woefully underfunded and need more funding. That seems uncontroversial.

So I want to get to the problems that everybody when I ask about this online, everybody sort of comes up with the same question, which is just this sort of nest of moral hazard problems. And so just for listeners who aren't familiar with the term, the idea of moral hazard is the worry here. One of the worries here is if this becomes a real possibility, it will serve as an excuse to do less mitigation basically to reduce emissions less. The idea is here we have an escape hatch. Like, I had a guest on talking about modeling a few weeks ago and she was sort of talking about how in climate models we just have CCS plugged in as kind of a carbon capture and Sequestration plugged in as kind of a gap filler because we don't know what else to fill that gap with.

But it gives us sort of this false sense of security. Like, oh, we can get to the targets. Even though if you look at the models like, oh, here's a kajillion tons of a technology that does not really exist yet on any commercial scale. So it's giving us a false sense of security. And her worry is that solar radiation management is going to serve a similar role. ie. Kind of an escape hatch that you can just plug into models when you want to get the right output. That's one of the remoral hazard arguments is it'll lull us into a false sense of security and will reduce the urgency of mitigation.

I'm sure you've discussed that issue a kajillion times. What's your kind of take on it?

Kelly Wanser

Yeah, we might need a whole 'nother podcast, but...

David Roberts

I know I wish we had more time for this.

Kelly Wanser

I share the worry that it gets plugged in in a similar kind of way. I might differ in what I think that means about research because I've had this moral hazard issue come into our world in saying it's a reason not to do research, because the research itself creates this impression that you're going down this path and it opens up this option and digging into this coming from outside and looking starting to learn from people the history. Because these same arguments were made about adaptation research, and they were made about carbon dioxide removal research, and they were even made about research into reducing methane that it would distract from looking at CO2. And what kind of happens is they say, well, the research creates a moral hazard, so they sort of suppresses research.

Adaptation research is a really good example because then you didn't have it. Well, the research might have given you a lot of really interesting information that compelled thinking about emissions reduction because of the kind of adaptation shit show that...

David Roberts

I know, the more you know about adaptation, the more — it's not like you're going to be like, "Oh that's easy, that's easy."

Kelly Wanser

Let's just do that on planet Earth would have been to have just tons of adaptation research. That really blew my mind, actually. And so when I think, I guess, or our premise is that information actually helps. And when you dig into these climate interventions, they're not magic. And I sat with conservatives and Republicans in Congress and said to them, look, what the science tells you is the least amount of additional things you put in the atmosphere, the safer it is.

David Roberts

Yeah, which is just completely ...

Kelly Wanser

It's showing you where the thresholds are, and I can have that conversation. And so we say there's at least we need to look at the evidence that when we start to dig into this, there's also evidence could be highly motivating of pushing on emissions reductions and pushing on the things we can do, that's in addition to all ... the fact that we want to fill gaps and information that will help all these other parts of the climate problem, we're saying that we think society actually with more information, can do a better job and that information itself isn't bad.

David Roberts

Well, most people would agree with that up to a certain extent, I think, but then gathering information is one thing, but how do you at a certain point when you're talking about doing these things it's so complex, there's no way to predict or model completely in advance what's going to happen. So ultimately you have to do some of this stuff to find out what's going to happen. And I guess a lot of people just wonder sort of like how do you half do this? What does an experiment along these lines even look like? And ultimately, like how much can you learn without doing it on a big broad scale?

And then once you've done it on a big broad scale it's sort of like the Pandora's box is open. It's one thing to understand the climate better, but how do you understand doing these things without doing them?

Kelly Wanser

I think if you think about the steps of what you can learn, in what ways. So the thing that scientists are proposing doing are releases of plumes, like small batches of plumes, like the equivalent of what comes out of the smoke stack of a ship or of an aircraft. And that gives you a lot more information than you have now about how the particles behave when they hit the atmosphere and how they disperse. And that is information that right now, if you want to model this stuff, you're just taking a wild flaming guess, and then everything downstream of that is based on your wild flaming guess.

And so if I want to know like what are the exactly right size of particles and those really teeny in earth terms experiments give you that first order information that you can plug into models and then your models of what happens at a bigger scale are a lot smarter. And so that level, like I think scientists have said they've recommended it already in scientific assessments, but people are confused because it's sort of conflated with, "Oh, previous folks in the space have said this is cheap and easy to do and we got a guy out there saying you can throw up balloons." It's like I've dug a tiny hole, but I'm building a skyscraper. What you would need to engineer the climate system is tens of billions of dollars of investment in something that would be able to influence the planet at a really big scale.

And so you have this inflection point where there's a bunch of science you need to do to even advise countries or the world as to what would make sense as far as regards investment like that, if anything. So no one is going to be off doing this at the kind of scale that would really have a major impact without a really big investment.

David Roberts

Well, let's talk about this then, because it is sort of...

Kelly Wanser

I let myself in for that one, didn't I?

David Roberts

This kind of conventional wisdom, or at least often repeated in this space, that sulfur particles and squirting them up into the atmosphere is relatively cheap compared to other things such that like a single interested country or even a single interested billionaire could do a big chunk of it themselves. So before we discuss the kind of security and governance implications of that, just is that true?

Kelly Wanser

Well, I think what's happened, as some research has started to happen there's the things that sort of physicists and modelers do with the information that they have and the numbers that they have and aren't taking into account a lot of the complexity, a lot of the uncertainty, or even a lot of the way the world really works. And so then you dig in and you say, oh, no, what it looks like is you need platforms capable of reaching the stratosphere if you're going to work up there. There's only a handful of countries that have that one species programs, and you would need to scale up very substantially, like any sort of capacity for that, which is not within the means of more than a handful of countries and really not in the means of any individual billionaire either. And also, by the way, none of them are stepping in to spend their whole net worth this way either.

So I think that was kind of when you do it in the back of the envelope and you know very little, you can sort of be optimistic about that. But when you dig in, the reality is it's probably a subset of the world's developed countries or countries with a lot of assets who would be players in that. Now, in the low cloud layer, it's a little bit different because you've got these cloud seeding efforts that are coming up and springing up to try to address local impacts and there are ways that cloud brightening could be used that people are starting to look at. And so you could get regional things that could affect other people and things like that that are more widely available or potentially used.

So these are questions that need to be thought about. And again, science and observation really helps you and it's not a good space to be flying blind in.

David Roberts

Right.

Well, the broader question of governance, I guess, is one thing that really just vexes people about. This vexes me about it, too, which is just like whenever I read or listen to someone like you talk about it, I'm like just like cool heads.

Reasonable people taking all the right precautions, building institutional capacity such that scientists are in the driver's seat of this thing and policymakers only doing what scientists sort of advise them. And there's international cooperation and there's knowledge sharing, et cetera, et cetera. It sounds delightful when sensible people discuss it as though sensible people will be in charge of it. But of course, a glance at recent world history reveals that quite frequently sensible people are not in charge. You said that the bar for getting seriously involved in this is higher than maybe people think. But it certainly seems like this is something that people could be doing sort of half ass experiments with in various ways.

How do you I guess just what's your confidence that a sensible international knowledge transparent knowledge sharing system is going to be in place to manage doing this research and taking these experiments and trying this versus scientists losing control over it and insane capitalists or rogue nations or whatever taking it and running with it? Is there an answer to that question like what's the best we can do to try to keep this under the control of sensible people?

Kelly Wanser

Well, that's a good question. And I think one of the reasons that SilverLining exists is really that question, which is if you think about the climate conditions getting potentially worse and worse and people being more inclined to take kind of radical actions how do you put yourself in a position to be smart, to be equitable, and to be as safe as you can in that context? So it definitely appears that when you have a sharing of information and you have cooperation around science and information, it calms everybody down. And there's a lot of when we have conversations with policymakers, whether it's in Congress or the UN.

And we say, yeah, you know, we're here to talk about science anyd how we step forward on scientific work and cooperation and feel like, great, because we can do that as as policymakers and we can work across the aisle. We can work with people we don't agree with on other things. If we're in the science lane and that's been true in our experience in the US where we've worked across the aisle in Congress and we've gotten Republicans to increase basic climate, basic science budgets in a Republican Congress.

David Roberts

Well, that's something.

Kelly Wanser

Yeah. And so when you're talking about science and you're talking about ways of the technology can improve science and sharing information, same at the UN level. And then as we started to dig into how do different things work in the UN and where do they work well and where don't they work well and why? And we worked with a couple of experts, Dan Bodanski, who wrote the book on international climate law, and Sue Biniaz, who is the current Deputy Climate Advisor for the US to look at that question in the context of this subject and what emerged is like what we are interested in, SilverLining is what is most effective in terms of outcomes?

What produces the best outcome in the environment, what produces the best outcome in safety for people? And the absolute best case of that is the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone layer. And so we really have gone up close and personal to figure out why does that work? And yeah, people say, "Well, it's a narrow problem, but actually it's quite similar to this one. You've got a smaller number of actors, you've got a sort of focus thing they're emitting. You've got all the countries of the world not only agreeing to that, but they've agreed that changes in it, expansions of it, everybody makes their commitments."

It's really interesting. And they have this feature that's different from the other UN fora the scientific and technical assessment panels that make the evaluation of what's going on and what needs to be done are fully independent of the nation states. Their reports are written completely independently. And if you look at the IPCC, where the UN does their climate work, they negotiate kind of the top line summary of what those reports say...

David Roberts

Yeah.

Kelly Wanser

...with the countries. And so, again, we could do a whole podcast on this. But I would say that really looking at the Montreal Protocol, a. because it does apply to this particular thing as it would operate the stratosphere and b. because understanding how that works is really important because all the countries of the world are continuously meeting every year and we went to their meeting.

It's calm, people are calm. It's incredible. So figuring that out and how we can translate that onto other things, I think it's a really good idea.

David Roberts

Yeah. If only all international cooperation and agreements could be as calm and sensible as Montreal.

Kelly Wanser

Right.

David Roberts

This does seem like an area where really going overboard to keep the science independent seems super important because this is just this whole thicket of issues here is going to implicate countries in a lot of like sort of our interests versus global interests. There's going to be a lot of ulterior motives, I think involved. Everybody's going to be sort of thinking, on the one hand, how can we improve the world and the state of science? On the other hand is like, how can we make out best in a world where people are messing with solar radiation?

So it does seem like independent science is more important even than normal.

Kelly Wanser

And it's really important to your point from before, that other countries, especially the most impacted to developing countries, have the same level of access to information and can evaluate it for themselves.

David Roberts

Is there kind of a short-term goal of yours? Like, is there a particular development or institution you'd like to see funded or just like a first step, is there something kind of tangible people can look forward to and advocate for if they want to see more progress on this?

Kelly Wanser

Well, certainly they can support SilverLining. We're like a medical foundation, so we fund research directly so that we can help advance some of the initial critical research, like getting the climate model supporting some of these problems, some of the lab work and things like that. And that feeds into our broader advocacy, which is trying to get the US government to invest in research aggressively. And like you said, some of these assets that we need to understand the atmosphere and climate system for people who are in a position to help influence attention on the fact that we have gaps in our understanding of what influences on the atmosphere due to the climate.

And that's not acceptable. And we need to improve on that really fast.

David Roberts

Right. It's a little wild that we just spent we just passed a bill spending hundreds of billions of dollars on manufacturing and stuff, and literally like a rounding error on any of those sums would have been enough to double our research budget. It's a little wild.

Kelly Wanser

Yeah. So anything people can do to kind of be in there for the atmosphere. We're alone on the Hill right now lobbying for increases in budgets for atmospheric observations and research.

David Roberts

I guess I don't understand. Why are scientists themselves not more self interestedly, advocating for this? Like, why don't you have allies?

Kelly Wanser

Very interesting. I talked to them about because, like, the astrophysics community, the telescope people, man, they get those big telescopes. They're really good at it. But part of it is that climate research is classified and has emerged as a basic science. It's very academic, and it hasn't involved big applied efforts. And technologies have come in relatively recently, so they've been pretty good at getting, like, super computing attached to national labs. But in general, it's very academic. There's been a lot of downward pressure on climate scientists in terms of sticking their necks up. And so it just hasn't had those same drivers, and it doesn't have a commercial community like bioscience or space.

There's no money in it for anybody.

David Roberts

You got to wonder once we understand these things a lot better and get a lot better at it if there might emerge commercial applications. Can you imagine that?

Kelly Wanser

It's changing quickly because there are obviously economic interest in being able to make better predictions. And as the climate system gets more volatile and there are more risks, that information becomes more valuable. So the landscape is changing, but that upstream part, which is, do we know what's specifically in the atmosphere? And can we model that from its tiny components down to what it's doing to the climate system? That piece is so basic and so general to everyone that nobody's there.

David Roberts

Interesting. Well, thank you for coming on and clarifying this. I feel like this is a subject where there's just lots of weird mythologies and hang ups and access to grind floating around and not a lot of sort of basic knowledge of what's actually happening and what needs to happen, so I appreciate your work on this. And thanks for coming on and sharing with us.

Kelly Wanser

Well, I really appreciate your questions and the opportunity to talk about it. Love your show. Thanks for having me.

David Roberts

Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad-free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversations like this, please consider becoming a paid volts subscriber at volts.wtf. Yes, that's volts.wtf, so that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much. And I'll see you next time.

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Volts

Volts

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)