As the United States and the world confront the consequences of human-caused climate change, advocates of solar engineering, including tech billionaire Bill Gates, seek to influence climate policy. To cool the planet, solar geoengineering seeks to reflect some sunlight back into space. As David Vetter reported for Forbes, in January 2022 a group of 16 prominent scientists published an open letter calling for an international non-use agreement, arguing that the normalization of solar engineering technology is a cause for alarm. More than fifty senior scholars from around the world, described by Forbes as “heavyweight academics,” have since added their names to the open letter. Even before the scientists’ open letter was published, Vetter wrote, indigenous groups around the world had called for halting a Harvard-sponsored experiment, backed by Gates, to partner with the Swedish Space Corporation to test solar geoengineering technology. Indigenous opposition, led by the Saami Council, which represents indigenous Saami people across Scandinavia and in Russia, and joined by climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, stemmed from both use of Saami land for the tests and concerns about solar geoengineering technology itself. Although Harvard suspended its planned experiment, debate surrounding solar geoengineering continues.
Geoengineering technologies have been used in countries including China, as The Hill reported in December 2021. As Shirin Ali reported for the Hill, citing a previous report from the South China Morning Post, the Chinese government used weather modifying technology to control precipitation and pollution in preparation for national anniversary celebrations in July 2021. The Chinese national Weather Modification Office also likely utilized similar techniques in attempts to reduce smog and avoid rain in anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Hill reported.
A June 2021 Pew Research Center poll found that “only a small share” of the US public is familiar with the idea of solar geoengineering. A majority of the poll’s respondents (57%) said they knew nothing about it. Only four percent said they have heard or read a lot about solar geoengineering.
Lack of substantive news coverage about solar geoengineering may have something to do with that deficit of knowledge. Although establishment news media have recently addressed the growing concerns of scientists, academics, and indigenous groups, news outlets have, nonetheless, failed to inform the public about the state of the art in solar geoengineering practices. Beyond the January 2022 Forbes article coverage has been limited. A May 2021 Wall Street Journal article featured three solar geoengineering experts debating the potential benefits and risks of geoengineering research. A 2019 MIT Technology Review in 2019 article reported that the federal government had allocated at least $4 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess “climate interventions,” but this investment received little public attention.
David Vetter, “Solar Geoengineering: Why Bill Gates Wants It, But These Experts Want To Stop It,” Forbes, January 20, 2022 [updated January 22, 2022].
Shirin Ali, “New Study Says China Controlled Its Weather This Summer,” The Hill, December 6, 2021.
Student Researcher: Filippa Hemmestorp (Saint Michael’s College)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (Saint Michael’s College)