A Small Provision in the FY20 Spending Package Deserves a Much Bigger Discussion

January 24, 2020 | 2:36 pm
Shuchi Talati
Former Contributor

The appropriations process is what Congress uses to make decisions about how the federal government will spend discretionary funds – funds that aren’t already designated to mandatory spending. The process is confusing, convoluted, and often gets behind schedule: the 2020 fiscal year appropriations process, for example, finally came to a close a few months after FY20 began. The spending package that passed both chambers of Congress and was signed by the president in December 2019 accounts for $1.4 trillion in spending, from national defense to housing to climate science.

Within that almost incomprehensible amount, there was a small, yet important $4 million earmark that merits scrutiny: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was given this money specifically to conduct solar geoengineering research, the first time in the United States that Congress has allocated money to a federal agency to do so. It’s a small pot of money, but it’s important to understand the context in which it was allocated. Currently, two critical processes to help design solar geoengineering research governance are taking place, and there are consequences to the federal government jumping ahead of their results. For something as controversial and dangerous as solar geoengineering, we have to get the governance right.

Some context

Solar geoengineering describes a controversial set of proposed approaches to limit warming by reflecting sunlight to cool the planet. The most widely discussed approach is stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), a method that would inject aerosols into the stratosphere, which is an upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere. These aerosol particles would then reflect sunlight and could rapidly cool the planet, offsetting warming from global warming emissions for a relatively low direct cost. However, such measures come with significant risks and uncertainties – scientists, for example, do not fully understand the impacts of such measures on global weather patterns. There are also legitimate risks to geopolitical stability and these approaches do not address the underlying cause of climate change. However, when considered as part of a portfolio of approaches to address climate change, solar geoengineering could limit harm while we scale up mitigation, adaptation and carbon removal efforts.

Solar geoengineering research is in nascent stages and has been largely limited to computer modeling. More modeling research is certainly needed, and there are now proposals for small-scale outdoor experiments, such as Harvard University’s SCoPEx project. But moving forward with solar geoengineering requires us to first establish robust governance. Lack of governance on any scale is arguably the most dangerous aspect of geoengineering, including governance for research. Research governance is critical for solar geoengineering since it is a technology that poses global impacts, even at the experimental stage. It ideally includes oversight, transparency, and measures to ensure that the public and a diverse set of stakeholders can participate in important decisions. There has been debate on whether and how a federal program in the United States may conduct, fund, and oversee future research, but thus far such a program does not yet exist.

Right now, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) is writing a report on developing solar geoengineering research priorities and approaches for research governance. This highly anticipated report is expected to provide detailed guidance on next steps in both research and oversight–a report that NOAA itself is helping fund. Importantly, National Academies reports provide legitimacy in their recommendations through a diverse and well-respected committee, thorough literature review, and external consultation. Due out in a matter of months, this report likely will be a basis on which future governance discussions and actions are built.

There is also an independent advisory committee in place to provide governance for the first outdoor small-scale experiment, the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment, or SCoPEx for short, at Harvard University. This committee is working to produce an inclusive review process for the experiment and will publicly release its findings and recommendations that can hopefully serve as a governance model for future experiments.

What does this mean?

So back to the $4 million earmark. The language instructs NOAA to do more research related to the stratosphere itself, building on what the agency already does, and directs them to also conduct observations from natural systems releasing aerosols into the stratosphere (that is, volcanic eruptions) – an extremely useful enterprise. The language then also proposes NOAA research into solar climate interventions, including modeling but also potential outdoor experiments.

Given that this earmark is authorizing funding for solar geoengineering research for the first time, it’s especially important that it provides clear direction, which is not readily apparent from the vague language (see page 17 for the relevant paragraph). While $4 million doesn’t amount to much money in a research context, designating this for solar geoengineering is jumping ahead of an important National Academies process that will provide specific recommendations for how to structure such funding and subsequent oversight for this and other geoengineering research.

At the same time the spending package passed this December, Congressman McNerney (D-CA), a member of both the House Science as well as Energy and Commerce Committees, built on the $4 million NOAA appropriation by introducing a separate bill that authorizes NOAA to create a formal program for solar geoengineering research. It would additionally grant the agency oversight authority to review research and related outputs from external groups in the United States. This would mean that NOAA could have oversight over research it is not conducting or funding.

Such a review process would likely be beneficially informed by the outcome of the SCoPEx governance process, as it’s not one that’s been done before and is being conducted by researchers outside of the government. While this bill is in the early stages of an arduous congressional process, it is also essential before moving forward to wait for the report from the National Academies to review and draw upon its recommendations.

Before Congress moves authorizes federal-level research and governance of an immensely controversial technologies, it must await input from external experts and publics to inform whether and how best to do so. 

We need more research into solar geoengineering to understand these approaches and their risks. But a U.S. federal program that allows support for outdoor experiments is, at best, premature.

NOAA should use the $4 million to continue studying the stratosphere and observing natural changes. But in advance of the National Academies report – and in a time when the federal government is failing to act (let alone lead) on climate mitigation and adaptation, our tax dollars should not be supporting investments in solar geoengineering experiments.