Solar Radiation Management

This is part of an ongoing series annotating Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

I remember the first time I heard Stewart Brand advocate for increasing reliance on nuclear power. It was disconcerting to hear someone whose thinking I generally respect advocate for something I generally oppose. I was not (and am not) on board with increasing humanity’s reliance on nuclear power, but after listening I understood his argument. It’s not the worst solution to the problems we face.

I felt the same way when reading KSR recommending large-scale geo-engineering projects. It’s a shock because I don’t think it’s a good idea, and after listening to his argument, I’m not sure I’m totally convinced, but concede it’s not the worst solution to the problems we face.

In MftF there are several examples of solar radiation management.

Solar radiation management is pretty much just as it sounds. A way to manage solar radiation. On an individual level we do this with sunscreen, or UV protection sunglasses.

For a large-scale project, you have to affect huge chunks of the sky or sea if it’s going to make any notable difference. In Ministry KSR deploys three major geoengineering strategies for managing solar radiation, one in the sky, one in the sea, and one on land.

Early in the novel India seeds the sky over their nation with sulphur-dioxide. KSR uses the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo as a reference/measurment. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the effects of that eruption on the atmosphere.

The effects of the 1991 eruption were felt worldwide. It ejected roughly 10 billion tonnes (1.1×1010 short tons) or 10 km3 (2.4 cu mi) of magma, and 20 million tonnes (22 million short tons) of SO2, bringing vast quantities of minerals and toxic metals to the surface environment. It injected more particulate into the stratosphere than any eruption since Krakatoa in 1883. Over the following months, the aerosols formed a global layer of sulfuric acid haze. Global temperatures dropped by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) in the years 1991–1993, and ozone depletion temporarily saw a substantial increase.

In interviews KSR pushes back against the kneejerk rejection to major geo-engineering projects. Geo-engineering solutions should be on the table, he argues, because the fear is unwarranted (for some proposals). Plus, we have gone too far not to consider large-scale geoengineering projects.

Wikipedia also give us background on stratospheric aerosol injection, the solar radiation management stategy Indian employs in MftF.

I suppose my objections, speaking as someone who is not an expert in the subject, are the potential for unexpected consequences, and the ethics of an elite group imposing this solution on a global population.

Something like spreading sulphur-dioxide in the atmosphere will likely negatively affect the ozone layer (as mentioned in the un-bolded portion of the Wikipedia excerpt), it will affect plant life in uncertain (and perhaps unpredictable) ways, and, if it works, it may become a crutch that’s trotted out every five years or so, while the substantial changes that need to happen are kicked down the road.

The global elite making a decision that affects every person on earth smacks too much of colonialism (as well as many other manifestations of power imbalance).

KSR argues that modelling atmospheric particulate dispersion on volcanic eruption provides us with an understanding of what the opportunities and threats look like. And, even if it’s a bad idea, the effects will mostly vanish after half a decade. It’s an emergency solution for emergency times.

Mentioned in passing later in the novel we learn that the arctic ocean has been died yellow to reflect more sunlight away from the ocean and reduce ocean warming. The most SFnal geo-engineering method is a method of reducing glacial slide. These I’ll discuss in future posts.

(NOTE: As I was editing this to post, the following article popped up in my feed: The U.S. Is One Step Closer to Establishing a Research Program to Block the Sun.)

“[A report from the National Academies of Sciences] chronicles three of the most common ideas to hack the sky, which includes injecting tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere, brighten marine clouds also using tiny particles, and thinning cirrus clouds.”

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.