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Characterizing Impacts and Implications of Proposals for Solar Radiation Management, a Form of Climate Engineering

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posted on 01.08.2011, 00:00 authored by Katharine L. Ricke

Even under optimistic emissions scenarios, rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will result in significant increases in global mean temperatures and associated effects for the foreseeable future (IPCC, 2007a,b). Concerns that mitigation may be too slow in coming have lead to renewed dialogue within the scientific community regarding potential strategies for counteracting global warming through geoengineering, defined as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.” (Shepherd et al., 2009)

The geoengineering schemes that are considered most feasible today involve planetary albedo modification, or “solar radiation management” (SRM). This thesis addresses several outstanding questions regarding uncertainty in global and regional effects of SRM activities. The technical components of this work are centered on two modeling experiments which use a coupled atmosphere-ocean general circulation model (AOGCM) implemented through Drawing upon knowledge gained through these experiments and interaction with the broader research community, I explore the international relations implications of SRM and the global governance issues associated with it.

The first experiment explored regional differences in climate modified by SRM using a large-ensemble modeling experiment that examines the effects of 54 global temperature stabilization scenarios. Our results confirm other research that shows a world with SRM would generally have less extreme temperature and precipitation anomalies than one with unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions and no SRM, but illustrate the physical unfeasibility of simultaneously stabilizing global precipitation and temperature as long as greenhouse gases continue to rise. Over time, simulated temperature and precipitation in large regions such as China and India vary significantly with different SRM trajectories and diverge from historic baselines in different ways. Hence the use of SRM to stabilize climate in all regions simultaneously may not be possible. Regional diversity in the response to different levels of SRM could complicate what is already a very challenging problem of global governance, and could make consensus about the “optimal” level of geo-engineering difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

The second experiment modeled SRM using a perturbed physics ensemble with a wide range of temperature responses and climate sensitivities, all of which are consistent with observed recent warming. The analysis shows that the efficacy and distribution of effects of SRM varies with the temperature response of the model. Models that produce more global warming are also generally more sensitive to SRM, so the amount of modification of the Earth’s energy balance needed to meet any given climate stabilization criteria appear to be relatively insensitive to climate sensitivity. While in the more sensitive models, SRM is generally less successful in returning regional climates to their unperturbed states the longer it is used to compensate for rising greenhouse gases, it is also where SRM is most effective relative to a no SRM alternative.

SRM does not prevent further acidification of the oceans and this fact, coupled with the fact that SRM can only slow, never halt, changes to regional climate states, makes SRM untenable as a long-term solution to the problems caused by rising GHGs in the atmosphere. Much more research on SRM is needed before any conclusions on whether or not to deploy it are reached, but this work suggests that regional inequities in climate response are probably not the main impediment to its effective implementation. While SRM can never perfectly correct for regional climate change, these experiments suggest that it generally reduces (rather than exacerbates) changes to regional temperature and precipitation and greatly reduces the rate of temperature change. Considering the slow progress society has made towards reducing emissions, however, it is important to consider the potential benefits SRM technologies may confer in reducing impacts to buy time for both mitigation and adaptation.




Degree Type



Engineering and Public Policy

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


M. Granger Morgan,David W. Keith

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