Imitating Volcanoes and Inter-State Conflict: Managing Solar Radiation Management

Simmi Rana


As climate change intensifies and certain countries become more desperate for a quick and easy way out, solar radiation management (SRM) may seem increasingly appealing. SRM is a type of geoengineering that imitates volcanic activity to reduce global temperatures. Through an environmental geopolitical lens, this podcast unpacks the role, or the lack of a role, the United States should play in the future of geoengineering, international politics, and climate change.



[vintage techno music]

Climate change is a scary problem that we as a society must reckon with as soon as possible. Creative and effective solutions are necessary to decrease emissions and draw down carbon dioxide that already exists in the atmosphere, and there are countless possible ways to do this. One fast-acting and inexpensive proposition is geoengineering, which involves manipulating the geosphere to decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and reverse global warming. Geoengineering is an umbrella term that contains vastly different solutions, and these solutions can be grouped into two categories: carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management, or SRM. The former can be constructive, while the latter is actually quite concerning.

Carbon dioxide removal is pretty self-explanatory, and it includes methods such as reforestation and the usage of biochar. Solar radiation management, on the other hand, is a little more complicated, both methodologically and politically. One type of SRM technology is stratospheric aerosol injection, which involves loading sulfur into the atmosphere to mimic volcanic activity and therefore decrease global temperatures. The Brookings Institute, a renowned think tank, released an article in which the authors argued the United States needs to spearhead creating an international governing regime to prepare for the risks that may come up as geoengineering becomes more of a possibility in the future of climate change.

Like I said at the beginning, climate change is scary, but manipulating planetary processes is also scary! You might be thinking a governing regime is not such a bad idea. But when you apply an environmental geopolitical perspective to this claim, it gets messy. In this episode, I will be unpacking this claim using three questions as outlined in the book Environmental Geopolitics by O’Lear: 1. How are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified in this claim, 2. What is the role of human agency within this claim? And 3. What is the spatial focus of this particular claim? I’m Simmi Rana, and you’re listening to “Imitating Volcanoes and Inter-State Conflict: Managing Solar Radiation Management”.

[vintage techno music]

The authors of the Brookings Institute article, Versen et al., start with a claim about security right from the get-go with an eye-catching title: “Preparing the United States for security and governance in a geoengineering future”. Versen et al. state that the US needs to focus on geoengineering security, but they do not talk about anything that actually needs to be secured.

Instead, they focus mainly on what the US and other countries stand to lose if geoengineering is used somewhere in the world. Solar geoengineering definitely has many implications for various parts of the environment but the article frames each of those possibilities as risks, which makes them concerns for the military or different defense groups. As you read the article, you realize that the words “security” and “risk” are being used haphazardly, which warrants an environmental geopolitical analysis. [bell ringing sound]

So, first question, where exactly are Versen et al. drawing the line between the environment and humans? In this article, the authors primarily limit the environment to the atmosphere since they are focusing on solar radiation management. According to the book Governance of Solar Geoengineering: Managing Climate Change in the Anthropocene, stratospheric aerosol injection involves introducing large amounts of sulfur into a certain region’s stratosphere. This will form sulfuric acid droplets that create an aerosol layer with the ability to reflect sunlight back into space, which then cools the planet.

After a few years, the sulfur falls back to the surface via rain, which means sulfur has to be consistently injected in order to maintain the cooling effect. This is a solution that addresses only the adaptation to climate change and not its mitigation, as carbon emissions are not necessarily abated while SRM technology is in use. Also, the environment is portrayed as malleable and something to take advantage of. At the end of the article, the authors give a few recommendations for the Biden administration. One suggestion is employing counter-geoengineering practices to thwart the effects of SRM employed in another country, such as by using a warming tool to balance planetary cooling.

Versen et al. fail to acknowledge some large gaps in their reasoning concerning why the environmental impact is connected to the idea of a geoengineering governing regime. One of those gaps is that geoengineering includes so many different types of technologies that it is politically problematic to suggest a geoengineering governance regime. In a review of this technology, Vaughan and Lenton mention that geoengineering can contain technology and practices simpler than SRM, such as reforestation and the usage of biochar. Therefore, suggesting the U.S. be in charge of an international governance regime would allocate more power to the U.S. in various countries in an unprecedented way.

Why would the U.S. need jurisdiction over some trees being planted in a different country? If the authors meant an SRM governance regime, they should have specified that. When advising policymakers or informing the public on such a serious subject, language matters, and it’s important to address any possible loopholes. Another gap in their definition of the environment is the exclusion of non-human parts of ecosystems. SRM is not widely studied and most knowledge of this technology is based on modeling efforts, but it’s pretty likely to have negative consequences for numerous parts of the environment. For instance, there could be a decrease in average temperature differences between day and night, which could lead to a disruption in ecosystem processes.

If SRM on its own could disrupt those processes, counter-geoengineering would be even more disruptive as temperatures would be unnaturally shifting back and forth quite rapidly. As detailed in a review by Russel et al, termination shock, or a rapid increase in temperatures, can occur after stratospheric aerosol injections are discontinued given that carbon emissions continue increasing during SRM. This phenomenon is often referenced as an argument against SRM. Just like how termination shock would be detrimental to ecosystems, we do not know enough about counter-geoengineering for investments in that technology to be a legitimate policy recommendation.

Moving onto the second part of the environmental geopolitical analysis, humans are much more complicated than Versen et al. assume they are. The main topic of this article is the creation of an international governing regime that would be prepared to respond to any country that uses geoengineering technology without consulting the international community. In this view of society, world leaders are restricted to solving conflicts through institutions led by a single country rather than a collaboration of countries. People are also seen as predictable and prone to conflict. The article actually starts out with a striking hook describing a scenario in which the unilateral usage of SRM technology would essentially lead to a war. [dun dun dun sound]

Similar to the authors’ perspectives on the environment, this view of human agency is giving too much credit to the U.S. government and not enough credit to the international community as a whole. This article assumes that other countries would be the unilateral SRM users and does not consider that the U.S. could also be at fault for using this technology.

This argument is coming from an American think tank, so it makes sense that they would not talk about this, but it’s still a hole in their argument. Szerszynski et al. discuss that geoengineering and democracy do not blend well because geoengineering may require an international autocracy in which one country must make decisions about what global temperature countries should aim for with SRM.

If the U.S. is being encouraged to start this governing regime, the authors may be suggesting the U.S. be that autocratic leader. The U.S. has always assumed the role of the world police, and if it assumes responsibility for the SRM governing regime, American climactic needs would likely be prioritized above all else. Also, O’Lear et al. discuss that states are not even necessarily the only possible culprits in this situation, and the article does not address this nuance. Compared to decreasing emissions, SRM is relatively inexpensive and could be made accessible to smaller states or non-state actors.

Depending on who this is, they could employ SRM on a smaller scale for their own benefit without considering the ramifications of SRM in the regions surrounding the actor at hand. Additionally, the authors of this article assume that conflict is always the answer to any sort of disagreement that occurs between countries. This deterministic view is clear in the choice to start the article with the possibility of war.

As explained in the book Environmental Geopolitics, the prospect of war will stand out to readers because it is something that could immediately be quantified based on probabilities and observed political patterns. This idea may even become the main takeaway from the article even though Versen et al. presented it as a mere possibility. It seems that international fallout is what ultimately motivates the authors to make the policy recommendation of a governance regime. While the risks of SRM are real, anticipated violence should not be what motivates the creation of a whole regime. Violent conflict is not the only outcome after SRM is used and focusing on this possibility takes away from the more pressing issues occurring around the world that are more deserving of attention and resources.

Next, let’s look at the third question in the environmental geopolitical perspective; what is the spatial focus of this claim? The premise of the authors’ argument is that a geoengineering governing regime is necessary because the global effects of geoengineering are too precarious for this technology to remain unmonitored and for the U.S. to be unprepared. Geoengineering models have depicted that SRM would be deployed regionally rather than globally, but the effects can travel across the globe. They state that the use of certain geoengineering technology can lead to issues such as terrorist attacks and intensified natural disasters, which would then motivate regions to halt SRM and lead to termination shock. They argue that certain countries will have to pay for the usage of this technology, and therefore an international governing regime is needed to deter and respond to such activity.

Although Versen et al. acknowledge that these global effects exist, their discussion of how these effects would manifest around the world is misleading. The adverse effects of climate change are already affecting people around the world, particularly in the Global South. O’Lear et al. elucidate that if a country were to deploy SRM technology, countries that are already more vulnerable to climate change would receive most of the negative effects and would likely not have much say in the international community. Global North countries often talk about climate change as an occurrence in the far future, which allows them to set vague goals for the mitigation of climate change. The future of climate change, however, is currently a reality in some regions.

Versen et al. do not talk about this and instead make it seem as if every country will equally experience the negative effects of SRM. The U.S. may not even be the most vulnerable country following SRM usage in a different country, so creating a governance regime would be premature. One last aspect not addressed by the authors is that states are only viewed as their responses to geoengineering and not as complex entities that have unique roles in the international community. The article does not account for how each country has varying needs, experiences, and perspectives that will shape their response to the climate change and any potential SRM.

According to Corner and Pidgeon, the moral hazard argument states that people may be less likely to change their personal habits and decrease their impact on the planet if SRM is used, which can then lead to termination shock. Hazard is a synonym for risk, and the authors of the Brookings Institute article should not assume every country’s residents would react to SRM similarly. This phenomenon is not guaranteed because individuals within a given country are not a monolith. Corner and Pidgeon’s study found that geoengineering may make climate skeptics and more individualistic or wealthier people more inclined to support climate action, but it can also make those same groups less likely to change their personal actions. However, there are so many people that don’t fit into those three categories, and it is unfair to assume SRM will promote moral hazards. Of course, I am not advocating for the usage of SRM just because moral hazards are not a given. However, Versen et al. should not use a possible outcome as evidence in support of a governance regime that reduces states to just their international political activity.

To wrap up, solar radiation management technology is not guaranteed to start a third world war. This investigation reiterated the importance of unpacking any claim about risk or security. SRM can have so many consequences for the environment and human relations and reducing that relationship to an issue of climate risks is dangerous because it leaves little room for more effective solutions. The U.S. should not create an international governing regime in anticipation of an understudied climate solution.

Suggesting that the US increase its say in international affairs is promoting a U.S.-centric view of the world without addressing America’s own flaws, and it is also pushing for more global solutions focused on adapting to increasing temperatures rather than encouraging small-scale and community-based solutions proven to be more worthwhile. The authors of the Brookings Institute article clearly did not realize that especially with a military as well-funded as the one the U.S. has, advising that the U.S. initiate an international governance regime revolving around geoengineering can lead to unnecessary global tensions that did not need to be an issue in the first place. Thank you for listening, this was “Imitating Volcanoes and Inter-State Conflict: Managing Solar Radiation Management”.

[vintage techno music starts]

This podcast used music and sound effects from the site FreeSound, including “Ding Ding Small Bell” by JohnsonBrandEditing under Public Domain CC0, “DunDunDunnn.wav” by copyc4t licensed under CC BY 4.0, and “Vintage – Techno house loop – 110bpm” by frankum licensed under CC BY 4.0.

[vintage techno music fades out]


“Ding Ding Small Bell” by JohnsonBrandEditing is in the Public Domain, CC0.

“DunDunDunnn.wav” by copyc4t is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

“Vintage – Techno house loop -110bpm” by frankum is licensed under CC BY 4.0.


Corner, Adam and Nick Pidgeon. 2014. “Geoengineering, Climate Change Skepticism and the ‘Moral Hazard’ Argument: An Experimental Study of UK Public Perceptions.” Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society a Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 372 (2031). 10.1098/rsta.2014.0063..

O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

O’Lear, Shannon, Madisen K. Hane, Abigail P. Neal, Lauren Louise M. Stallings, Sierra Wadood, and Jimin Park. 2021. “Environmental Geopolitics of Climate Engineering Proposals in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report.” Frontiers in Climate 3.

Reynolds, Jesse L. 2019. The Governance of Solar Geoengineering. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, Lynn M., Philip J. Rasch, Georgina M. Mace, Robert B. Jackson, John Shepherd, Peter Liss, Margaret Leinen, David Schimel, Naomi E. Vaughan, Anthony C. Janetos et al. 2012. “Ecosystem Impacts of Geoengineering: A Review for Developing a Science Plan.” Ambio 41: 350-369.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw, Matthew Kearnes, Phil Macnaghten, Richard Owen, and Jack Stilgoe. 2013.“Why Solar Radiation Management Geoengineering and Democracy Won’t Mix.” Environment and Planning 45 (12): 2809-2816.

Vaughan, Naomi E. and Timothy M. Lenton. 2011. “A Review of Climate Geoengineering Proposals.” Climactic Change 109 (3): 745-790.

Versen, Joseph, Zaruhi Mnatsakanyan, and Johannes Urpelainen. 2021. “Preparing th United States for Security and Governance in a Geoengineering Future.” Brookings Institute, December 14th, 2021. preparing-the-united-states-for-security-and-governance-in-a- geoengineering-future/.