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Letter to Science: The risks of solar geoengineering research

June 10, 2021

CSSN Scholars Jennie C Stephens, Prakash Kashwan, Duncan McLaren, and Kevin Surprise warn that unilateral solar geoengineering research—undertaken without public participation or global governance—risks undermining progress on energy system transformation.

The risks of solar geoengineering research

As the climate crisis worsens, pressure is mounting for world leaders to accelerate climate action. A National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report (1) released in March recommends that the United States invest unilaterally to expand research on solar geoengineering, a set of controversial proposed strategies to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back to space. However, unilateral, preemptive research without broad public participation, and before a global governance structure is established, risks exacerbating international conflict and undermining progress on energy system transformation away from fossil fuels in the highly contested and politicized landscape of global climate policy (24).

The idea of a technical intervention to counter global warming may have some appeal, but the social, political, and environmental risks associated with solar geoengineering research need to be prioritized in policy discussions (2, 5, 6). Given the dangers of advancing solar geoengineering (7), including further concentrating power among elites (2) and deterring mitigation efforts (4), inclusive processes for public deliberations on whether, when, and how public funding should be provided to support climate manipulation are essential. Advocacy for solar geoengineering research continues to be dominated by white male scientists from the Global North funded by tech-billionaires and elite philanthropy (8). More diverse voices are needed to expand public discourse beyond the narrow technocratic narrative that limits authentic deliberation about the risks.

The United States is already the world leader in solar geoengineering research, but given widespread distrust of U.S. leadership on climate change (9), and the legacies of unilateral U.S. action in international affairs, fear of U.S. unilateralism in advancing solar geoengineering technology is likely to increase risks of militarization or securitization of this planetary-scale intervention (10). Research on solar geoengineering, therefore, if it is to proceed, needs to be multilaterally governed under the United Nations systems (11, 12). Rather than establishing a unilateral U.S. research program on global manipulation of Earth’s climate, the Biden/Harris administration should expand U.S. investment in multilateral, coordinated efforts to reduce fossil fuel reliance, advance global climate action, and commit to climate justice.

Jennie C Stephens1*, Prakash Kashwan2, Duncan McLaren3, Kevin Surprise4

1School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115, USA. 2Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269, USA. 3Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YQ, UK. 4Environmental Studies, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA 01075, USA.

*Corresponding author. Email: j.stephens@northeastern.edu


  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Reflecting sunlight: Recommendations for solar geoengineering research and research governance” (The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2021).
  2. J. C. Stephens, K. Surprise, Global Sustainability (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
  3. C. McKinnon, Environ. Polit. 28, 441 (2019).
  4. D. McLaren, O. Corry, Glob. Pol. 12, 20 (2021).
  5. C. H. Trisos et al., Nat. Ecol. Evol. 2, 475 (2018).
  6. A. Gupta et al., Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 45, 10 (2020).
  7. A. L. Abatayo et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 117, 13393 (2020).
  8. F. Biermann, I. Möller, Polit. Law Econ. 19, 151 (2019).
  9. A. Unny, “Why the United States re-engagement with the Paris Agreement is crucial in a post-COVID world,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (2020).
  10. K. Surprise, J. Polit. Ecol. 27, 213 (2020).
  11. S. Jinnah et al., Sustainability 11, 3954 (2019).
  12. E. L. Chalecki, Georgetown J. Int. Affairs 22, 112 (2021).


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