Important, Despite the Controversy — Geoengineering Research

We have just released the newest episode of our podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  In this latest episode, I engage in a conversation with David Keith, professor at Harvard and one of the world’s leading authorities on geoengineering.

Recently, the Earth System Research Laboratory of NOAA – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – announced that it had received authorization to study what they characterized as “Plan B for climate change,” namely to examine the science behind what is usually referred to as “geoengineering,” including the possibility of injecting particular aerosols into the stratosphere to help shade the Earth from sunlight.  NOAA emphasized that this and other techniques of geoengineering are recommended in a forthcoming study from the National Academies titled, “Climate Intervention Strategies that Reflect Sunlight to Cool Earth.”

Until now, neither the U.S. Congress nor the Administration has moved forward with such work, but NOAA pointed out to the press that “the closest thing to testing is a Harvard University project called the “Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment.”  That project is co-directed by my guest in the latest episode of our podcast, David Keith, who directs the closely-related Solar Geoengineering Research Program.

David is the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In this new episode of our monthly podcast, Professor Keith recounts how he came to focus his research on climate change, and how his interest in geoengineering evolved.  All of this is found in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here.

David is renowned for his work at the intersection of climate science, energy technology, and public policy over the past 25 years.  A Canadian native, he is faculty director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, a Harvard-wide interfaculty research initiative which aims to further critical research on both the science and governance of solar geoengineering. While best known for his work on geoengineering, Keith has also conducted extensive research on carbon capture and storage, and is the founder of Carbon Engineering, a company which develops technologies for direct air capture (an approach that he keeps completely separate from his Harvard research, which focuses on solar radiation management).

In our conversation, I asked David what work he is most proud of – a difficult question for any researcher to answer, because the question is akin to asking a parent to identify his or her favorite child.  After taking some time to reflect, David cited his landmark 2000 article in the Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, in which he first presented the case for the potential of solar geoengineering to help mitigate the impacts of global climate change.  It was a controversial study which prompted intense pushback from some environmental activists and some academics who argued that such technologies would lessen political pressure to address the root causes of climate change, that is greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is a thing where people have extremely strong opinions, and I don’t think that solar geoengineering necessarily makes sense as policy. I think it might well make sense to ban it. What I do think is that it deserves serious study and that we won’t make better decisions about it by kind of maintaining a taboo where nobody talks or thinks about it,” he said.

“Sensible climate policy is not one thing and a kind of monomania around emissions cuts doesn’t make sense. Of course, we have to do emissions cuts. It’s the single most important thing. If we don’t do it, nothing else does it, but the idea that it’s only emissions cuts, I think, is just now clearly wrong.”

“It may be that thinking about solar geoengineering for some people should mean a permanent moratoria, and for other people, it should mean pathways towards deployment.  I’m open minded about what the right answer is, but I think it is one of the big climate policy instruments, and we won’t do sensible policy if you pretend it’s not there.”

My conversation with David Keith is the sixth episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.