To Understand Solar Geoengineering, We Need the Social Sciences

In an article for Science’s Policy Forum, experts from a variety of fields consider how the social sciences can inform the understanding, application, and implications of solar geoengineering.


Nov. 12, 2021

News Type

Press Release

Twenty-one scholars from across the scientific spectrum outline the need to include the social sciences in solar geoengineering research in a new article for Science’s Policy Forum.

Solar geoengineering is a proposed method to cool the planet by changing the reflecting capabilities of the atmosphere. For example, injecting aerosols—which reflect sunlight—high in the atmosphere would slow the rate of global climate change by reducing the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth. Many of its pros and cons are still unknown, but solar geoengineering is a controversial approach because it could allow one country to unilaterally influence the global climate—and potentially push others to retaliate via military or trade measures.

In their article, the authors, including five experts affiliated with Resources for the Future (RFF) and the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment (EIEE), argue that the social sciences are a necessary component of solar geoengineering research. The authors note that solar engineering is not “simply reversing climate change,” and that its implementation could have unintended risks, making diverse and interdisciplinary evaluation all the more important. Because implementation would affect people who had no part in the decisionmaking process, the social sciences can help parse tough questions about the impact of solar geoengineering on costs, benefits, risks, and uncertainty; political relationships; and the broader climate strategy portfolio. The social sciences can identify who will be most affected by potential benefits and drawbacks, how they might respond, and how these interactions might paint a more realistic view of consequences beyond a purely physical science approach.

"Solar geoengineering may prove a key component of our climate policy portfolio, together with adaptation and mitigation,” lead author and RFF University Fellow Joseph Aldy said. "But while recent analyses have projected the potential impacts to our climate system, they have not yet examined this method through the human lens—national security, game theory, behavioral science, economics, and norms and cultures. We should draw from an array of fields to inform policy considerations of how this emerging technology could help combat the risks posed by a changing climate.”

Advancing social science research and integrating it with existing physical science research could help inform the role solar geoengineering may play alongside mitigation and adaptation measures. Government and civil society assessments of the benefits, costs, risks, and fairness issues associated with a given approach are borne out of political and economic forces. As such, the design of a solar geoengineering policy—and to what extent it considers social issues—may influence how effective it will be overall.

“We need a better understanding of how solar geoengineering might fit into the larger fight against climate change,” Billy Pizer, RFF Vice President for Research and Policy Engagement, said. “Solar geoengineering isn’t a silver bullet to stop climate change—it will improve some outcomes but likely worsen others. There will be a great deal of geographic variation and uncertainty. Holistic modeling can help us understand how such an approach might have upstream and downstream effects on decisionmaking, including on our use of the other mitigation and adaptation policies to either avoid entirely the need for solar geoengineering or as part of a more complete response.”

"There are a lot of unknowns,” Massimo Tavoni, director of EIEE, added. “We hope that this article will help make scholars and decisionmakers more aware of the sort of research we need to better understand solar geoengineering. Such an approach would be an extraordinary measure, for which we would need extraordinary science.”

Coinciding with the article’s publication, RFF is also announcing a request for proposals to encourage additional scholarship to begin answering some of these questions.

For more, read the article, “Social Science Research to Inform Solar Geoengineering,” coauthored by Joseph Aldy, Harvard Kennedy School professor and RFF university fellow; Billy Pizer, RFF Vice President for Research and Policy Engagement; Massimo Tavoni, director of EIEE; and others.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

For more information, please see our media resources page or contact Media Relations and Communications Specialist Annie McDarris.

Related People

Related Content