In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Shuchi Talati, founder and executive director of the Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering, about the potential of solar geoengineering as a tool to combat climate change. Talati discusses the science behind solar geoengineering, democratic and inclusive processes for engaging all nations in deliberation over the use of solar geoengineering, and public perception of the technology.
Listen to the Podcast
- Solar geoengineering could be a last-resort tool to cool the planet: “Solar geoengineering refers to large-scale, intentional methods to reflect sunlight that can cool the planet … We don’t know if it’s going to have the capacity to actually function the way we need it to, but we have to talk about it … Even if we were to invest in adaptation at the levels that we should be (which we are not), there are certain kinds of impacts that adaptation can’t address, like extreme heat, massive sea level rise, and extreme weather events. That’s where solar geoengineering comes into play.” (3:14)
- Democratic decisionmaking around solar geoengineering requires engaging the global public: “One of the things that is missing from solar geoengineering is the knowledge to be able to participate. Before you can actually build structures to get public input into anything, people have to understand what something is, what it means for them, what it looks like, [and] to be able to ask questions about this technology, what the uncertainties are—what we know, and what we don’t know.” (8:52)
- Preliminary attempts at solar geoengineering have come from the private sector: “When we look at companies that have started to do this very early-stage, very small-scale form of deployment, they’re not doing it in a way that’s actually engaging any of the people they’re claiming to be doing it for … I think there are key roles that philanthropy has to play, that civil society has to play, that the public sector has to play, but this is one space where I don’t think the private sector has a clear role—and probably shouldn’t.” (22:06)
Top of the Stack
- The Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering
- An Inconvenient Truth film
- Episode 4 (“2059: Face of God”) and Episode 5 (“2059 Part II: Nightbirds”) of Extrapolations TV show
- “Climate Crisis Is on Track to Push One-Third of Humanity Out of Its Most Livable Environment” by Abrahm Lustgarten
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi. Today we talk with Shuchi Talati, the founder and executive director of the Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering.
I’ll ask Shuchi about some basics. What is solar geoengineering, why might it be needed, and why is it controversial? Then we’ll hear about how her organization is seeking to build capacity among civil-society groups so that everyone—not just wealthy nations—has meaningful input into the governance of solar geoengineering. This topic and Shuchi’s work are extremely challenging, but it is fascinating and extremely important. Stay with us.
All right, Shuchi Talati, welcome to Resources Radio. It is great to have you.
Shuchi Talati: Thanks so much for having me.
Daniel Raimi: Shuchi, we are going to talk today about solar geoengineering and, in particular, about governance issues all around solar geoengineering. But, before we do that, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental topics—whether that started as an interest early in life or later. What drew you into this field in the first place?
Shuchi Talati: I’ve always been really interested in the environment growing up, but I think, interestingly, it was probably watching An Inconvenient Truth. I think I was in high school. That really drew my attention to the topic, and that was, I think, in the early 2000s, and it really just shifted my perspective on what role I could play in the world and what I should work on. In college, I actually started out as a biomedical engineering major and then quickly figured out I had no aptitude for biology, so I changed majors to environmental engineering and took the opportunity to learn about policy for the first time.
I interned on Capitol Hill with then-Senator Obama, and I just fell in love with policy and wanted to figure out if I could find an intersection in the space. Climate policy is where I landed. I’ve kind of been sitting in the center of controversial issues like solar geoengineering, but also carbon management, throughout my career. These have just been really fascinating spaces that I think we don’t think about in the ways that I think we often should, because they’re hard; they’re really challenging spaces. I really just wanted to dedicate my career to making sure that we have the most inclusive spaces when it comes to the hardest topics.
Daniel Raimi: That is such a cool description, and, when we think about the hardest topics, it’s hard to beat solar geoengineering for a really, really tricky topic. I’m looking forward to talking with you about it.
Before we get into the weeds about governance issues around solar geoengineering and what you’re working on in this space, let’s just define the term for people who might not be familiar with it. What is solar geoengineering? Why might we need it in the future? And why is it so controversial?
Shuchi Talati: Yeah, happy to dive in. Solar geoengineering refers to large-scale, intentional methods to reflect sunlight that can cool the planet. The reason that we know this works is because of large volcanic eruptions that have sent materials up into the upper layer of the atmosphere, called the stratosphere. Most recently, Mount Pinatubo in 1991 erupted in the Philippines and sent so much material into the stratosphere that it actually cooled the planet by over half a degree Celsius for over a year. This is something that we know could work, and solar geoengineering could be a potential way to emulate some of those responses.
This is something that we’re thinking about in the context of a worsening climate. This is not something that anybody wants to think about or wants to need, but, unfortunately, that’s where we are. This could be something that we might need to use. Now, we don’t know if it’s going to have the capacity to actually function the way we need it to, but we have to talk about it.
Even if we were to get to net zero tomorrow, climate impacts will continue for the next several decades. Even if we were to invest in adaptation at the levels that we should be, which we are not, there are certain kinds of impacts that adaptation can’t address, like extreme heat, like massive sea level rise, and extreme weather events. That’s where solar geoengineering comes into play. We know that it could be a potential tool to limit human suffering, but it also could exacerbate the same injustices that have led to climate change, so we have to really think about how we build research around this topic and the ways we actually solicit research questions, how they get funded, and who gets to participate in those processes.
Beyond that, as we start thinking about frameworks that can govern potential deployment, it’s so, so critical that we think about the intersection of solar geoengineering with justice. This is a space that I think is very nascent and is new to a lot of people, but really thinking about the role that the most vulnerable have to play is critical to how this field is going to move forward. It’s the communities that live in these really challenging environments already that have the most to gain or lose from solar geoengineering knowledge. That’s kind of the role that I’m stepping into with this new organization.
Daniel Raimi: That is great. And, of course, we’ll have a link to the Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering in the show notes so that people can go check it out and learn more about the organization. But one more background question before we get into these questions of justice: At this point, are there any international governance structures that exist for deliberations around solar geoengineering, or is there just nothing out there because it’s so nascent?
Shuchi Talati: There’s really nothing on the international stage, which is deeply concerning. We know that solar geoengineering is associated with so many uncertainties and risks, and we have to be able to have a much broader discussion to be able to understand the trade-offs when we are talking about solar geoengineering, but there are no frameworks at the international level, and there are very few that are even evolving at the national level. As we start seeing some of these early-stage efforts that are really concerning and that have been evolving over the last year or so, especially from the private sector, this growing lack of governance is becoming so much more blatant. The fact that we don’t have any consequences or agreements in place around irresponsible or harmful action is deeply concerning.
Daniel Raimi: We’re going to talk in a few minutes about some of those actions that people—I think rightly—consider irresponsible around solar geoengineering. But first, let’s talk about these justice and governance issues. This is a really hard question, and I’m sure you could write entire books about it—maybe you have written books about it or you are writing a book about it. But, in your view, what would a just governance structure look like around the topic of solar geoengineering, and what are some of the really important steps that need to be taken to get us moving in that direction?
Shuchi Talati: Yeah, it’s a really hard question, and I think, as I’ve been engaging in this topic for the last several years, what’s very clear to me is that I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I think what I do know is that there are very clear, critical steps that need to be taken to start moving towards that goal that we’re not yet taking. Thinking about things like public participation—which we know is a critical component to doing good science, to good research, to making good decisions that are well-considered and democratic—and thinking about what we actually need for that to be inclusive is really challenging.
One of the things that I think is missing from solar geoengineering is that knowledge to be able to participate. Before you can actually build structures to get public input into anything, people have to understand what something is, what it means for them, what it looks like in their communities to be able to ask questions about what this technology looks like, what the uncertainties are, what we know, and what we don’t know. That just really isn’t happening yet. I think that’s true domestically, that’s true internationally, and that’s a really key component of justice that we haven’t quite gotten to yet.
I think one of the biggest parts of thinking about just governance is this idea of procedural justice. It’s about fairness in decisionmaking. I don’t think that’s something that we’ve been successful at for anything, really, to be quite frank. I think when we look at climate governance historically, it’s been very challenging. It’s been very colonialistic, and we have an opportunity to really shift the way we do governance for solar geoengineering. It doesn’t exist yet, and we have a huge opportunity to build frameworks in a totally different way. I know that sounds really idealistic and naïve, but you have to start somewhere. I know that an ideally just system can’t exist for anything, but I do think we have a moral imperative, especially for solar geoengineering, to think about what types of systems can contribute to making governance of this technology as least unjust as possible.
Daniel Raimi: Something that comes to mind as you’re describing the procedural justice piece is the scale and scope of the effort that might be needed so that people can meaningfully participate, because solar geoengineering potentially could affect everyone on the planet. How do you think about the scope of action that you envision for these deliberations? I imagine you’re not talking about involving every person in the world in a deliberative process, but how do you bound that activity?
Shuchi Talati: Yeah, it’s really hard. This idea of global consent and this version of getting everyone’s input is not possible. I think we have to be able to start at the very beginning to say, What are the different sectors in this space? Who’s missing, and where can we start? To me, what’s really clear is that the Global South has been largely excluded from this conversation.
It’s a very heterogeneous region, of course. There are so many different countries that constitute the Global South, but that’s really where the most climate vulnerability is centralized, and, thinking about who in the Global South is then missing, we have to parse that apart, which is hard. I think what’s been really clear to me is that civil society is a place where we can start thinking about getting more diverse representation from a lot of different perspectives. This is a sector where policy is built; it’s where we can hold governments accountable. It’s where we advocate for what the public wants. This is a sector that’s been almost entirely missing from the solar geoengineering conversation.
Where I wanted to start was thinking about civil society across the Global South and what I can do to make sure that their participation is enabled in a way that’s not biased, that’s not done with any sort of agenda-setting from me or from anyone else—to say, “Here are resources to help you lead this type of work internally, and what can we do to have you contribute to the broader deliberative process?” I think that’s a place to start. I don’t think we know where this type of work will eventually lead, but I do know that without this type of work, we’re going to see a continuation of the way processes have happened in the past, which are largely centralized in the Global North, which are largely done without the input of different types of publics, and which are really colonialistic in nature.
Daniel Raimi: That totally makes sense and is such an important approach. I know that one of the pieces of this work that you’ve already alluded to is capacity building. When you think about building capacity in the Global South among civil society, can you help us understand why that matters so much, and why it matters to do it with these specific groups? And then, how do you do it? What are some of the steps on the ground that you envision taking in the future?
Shuchi Talati: Yeah, absolutely. I think capacity building is one of those things that gets talked about a lot, but that we haven’t really clearly defined. That’s something that I actually released a paper about when I launched the organization in April—to say, “This is how we are defining capacity building, and this is a model for how we hope to implement this work.” From my perspective, capacity building has to look at not just the knowledge that you’re trying to build, but the process through which you’re doing it. Making sure that you are taking into consideration what people need to know, what they want to know; making sure that skills and not just information are a part of that; and then making sure that you’re doing so through partnership with the local leaders in that space.
I don’t want ownership over this knowledge. I don’t want ownership over these processes. What I want to do is empower that knowledge and ownership in different places. Making sure that capacity is built in ways that are sustainable, in ways that are just, and then in ways that are actually used. I think one of the biggest challenges with capacity building—especially when it’s supply driven, like it is for solar geoengineering—is making sure that people also have incentive to want to engage in this space. I’m thinking about ways that immediately enable use of that knowledge, whether it’s participating in research-question development, participating in assessment or governance processes, or just having more meetings across different regions with other organizations that are talking about this, that are engaging with this, and then with experts that they can actually talk to in a much more informal way.
That’s kind of the way that I’m thinking about this. The reason it’s so important is, I think, how cross-disciplinary it is. It’s a core part of democracy. We have to have an informed public to be able to have democratic processes. In spaces that don’t have good information and unbiased knowledge built, misinformation becomes much more pervasive. We’re seeing that in a lot of different ways, especially in the United States, with this really catastrophic rise of misinformation. Thinking about capacity building is just so important.
I think there are a lot of key differences when it comes to capacity building for solar geoengineering and other things like carbon dioxide removal. When we look at something like carbon dioxide removal, it’s inherently slow. We know that it’s going to take a really long time to scale, and we know it’s really expensive. That’s why I wanted to focus this work on solar geoengineering, because it’s really different in those ways. It’s actually incredibly fast and relatively cheap. Something like solar geometry would cost a few billion dollars per year.
I think we have a really narrow window of time to actually build this knowledge in ways that give people the space and time to understand something this complex. When it happens—in terms of movement, not in terms of deployment—when we start thinking about really cascading, high-level decisions, it’ll be too late to really build up the participatory knowledge structure that’s necessary for participatory decisionmaking. Thinking about how to build knowledge and the best ways to do that has to start early. For solar geoengineering, we just don’t have as much time as we do for other types of technologies.
Daniel Raimi: One of the things that makes me think about that timing element is what I might see as a tension between the speed at which it can be deployed and the lack of information we have on its potential effects. It seems like there’s a million physical science questions that we don’t really know the answers to in concrete terms—effects on rainfall patterns at, like, granular geographic scales; all sorts of other physical science effects. How do you think about capacity building in the context of knowing that even if you can build capacity among individuals or organizations relatively quickly, you’re still going to be building that capacity to a point where there are deep uncertainties going forward?
Shuchi Talati: Yeah, absolutely. I think building knowledge around solar geoengineering is really important in the context of that uncertainty. I think knowing what we can and cannot know is actually really important for policymaking. Every policy decision we make is made in the context of uncertainty, and understanding what that uncertainty is and what science can or cannot tell us will lead to better deliberative processes. If we don’t have that level of engagement in the topic up to that point, I think we’re going to see much, much harder, more challenging conversations, because people don’t know what we can’t know. So, those uncertainties, I think, are just so critical for even understanding the potential for this type of approach and the potential impacts, because I think a lot of the geopolitical concerns around solar geoengineering are also related to attribution and this uncertainty.
If solar geoengineering were to be deployed and we saw some sort of massive climate catastrophe in a particular place, how do we know that it was either contributed to or caused by solar geoengineering, or if it was contributed to or caused by climate change? There could be a lot of geopolitical consequences to the answer, but we might not be able to know the answer, so making sure that those types of understandings are very clear in how discussions and deliberation happen is so, so important.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, to use the Donald Rumsfeld formulation, I think maybe we’re talking about moving things from the category of unknown unknown to the category of known unknown. Does that sound about right?
Shuchi Talati: It does, and I think it’s also just acknowledging that there will be unknown unknowns, and there unfortunately are not a ton of ways to limit that number, because they’re unknown. It’s one of these types of technologies that there’s still so much more we can learn through modeling and potentially small-scale experimentation, but there are inevitably things that we just can’t. And that makes it a really, really hard topic to tackle.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Well, you said you’d like to work on hard problems, so hopefully people are getting a sense of why this one is so hard. Moving from the abstract back down to the concrete for a minute, some of our listeners might have heard about this, but there have actually been some pretty dubious efforts by small companies that are selling supposed carbon offsets by releasing small amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere—at least, I think that’s what they’ve been doing. Again, it’s happening at a very small scale, to my knowledge. You can please correct me if I’m wrong. But rather than talking about any specific companies or any specific activities, I’m wondering if you can reflect a little bit more broadly on what role you think the private sector should be playing at this stage in developing solar geoengineering technologies, or whether it’s too early for them to be participating—or certainly deploying things—at this stage.
Shuchi Talati: Yeah, it’s definitely way too early for any talk about deployment in the private sector. There’s just so much that we don’t know. I think the real challenge with solar geoengineering is that there really, from my perspective, should not be a profit relationship. There’s too much that we, as we said, don’t know, and the types of impacts that could cascade are just really challenging to understand how that could be related to any market structure. When we think about solar geoengineering—in its essence, why it exists—from my perspective and from that of most people who work in this space, solar geoengineering is something that we work on because it could have the potential to limit human suffering. As I said, we don’t know the answer to that question yet, but when we start mixing in things like profit when it comes to human rights, I think things start getting very blurry and very problematic very quickly.
When we look at companies who have started to do this very, very early-stage, very small-scale form of deployment, they’re not doing it in a way that’s actually engaging any of the people they’re claiming to be doing it for. That’s not really something the private sector knows how to do. So, I don’t think the private sector really has a role to play right now, if ever. I think there are key roles that philanthropy has to play, there are key roles that civil society has to play, that the public sector has to play, but this is one space where I don’t think the private sector has a clear role, and probably shouldn’t.
Daniel Raimi: That’s really interesting and so different from many of the market-based policies that we often think about when it comes to climate change mitigation. As we mentioned earlier on and in the intro, you’ve recently founded the Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering (DSG). I’d love for you to just tell us more about this organization. What do you want to do? Are you going to be out there traveling around and talking to people about solar geoengineering? Are you going to be training the trainers? What are you going to be doing?
Shuchi Talati: I hope it’s kind of all of the above. This is something that I’ve taken some time to think about—what it should look like, and how it should play out. I’m incredibly excited by the wide array of opportunities that DSG can hopefully take on: talking to people; building not just knowledge, but a willingness and a desire to want to be a part of this conversation; and also really thinking about how this narrative has existed thus far and what it would take to change it. I think communication around solar geoengineering has been really stuck in a very vicious cycle of the loudest voices being the only ones that are amplified. To be honest, most of those voices are white men. It’s been kind of the only way that this field has really been perceived. This controversy is the immediate thing people talk about when you talk about solar geoengineering. How do we shift that?
I really want this organization to play the role of being a trusted institution, being an honest broker in providing information and providing perspectives. I think being neutral and being unbiased is incredibly important when it comes to capacity building, but that doesn’t mean that DSG can’t have opinions on what good governance looks like or how justice should be integrated into this field. Having this organization be an honest broker and being a voice for how inclusion, diversity, and good policy are really intertwined around solar geoengineering is something that I really hope that DSG can do.
The last thing I’ll say is, in terms of building knowledge, I think that’s such an important main goal of this organization. But after that, it’s also building pathways to where conversations are happening. I think one of the hardest parts when it comes to thinking about solar geoengineering in the United States is that it’s often viewed through a domestic lens. Thinking about climate justice from a global lens is so, so important, and I hope to build a lot more pathways for conversation between civil society across the Global South and in the Global North.
I think we need to have a wider understanding of perception of how people are experiencing climate impacts and of how they think about these topics, rather than continuing to see this very pervasive thing where we’re mostly seeing a lot of people just speak on behalf of others. We’re trying to just build that kind of wider understanding of how people are thinking about this and to actually build that diversity in a space that has been really exclusive for just too long.
Daniel Raimi: That sounds fascinating and so important. And yeah, your point about us in the United States often being myopic around these global issues is very well taken.
One last question, Shuchi, before we go to our Top of the Stack segment, and this is related to Top of the Stack, as it’s about popular media. Many listeners probably have seen or heard about popular depictions of how solar geoengineering might play out—often ways that it might play out in some kind of dystopian way, like the film Snowpiercer, or the TV show Snowpiercer, or the book Ministry for the Future. Popular media coverage is often catastrophic or apocalyptic.
How much do you think these depictions matter to the way that the public perceives solar geoengineering today? Do you think it’s a problem that anyone in the policy or scientific community can do anything about? Or is it just something that the media is going to run wild with?
Shuchi Talati: Yeah, it’s been really interesting. I think it’s been helpful, but it can be harmful, as well. I think it’s been helpful in getting this issue on a lot of people’s radars. I think especially Ministry for the Future has been really pervasive in prompting a lot of conversation around solar geoengineering. I mean, even with people in sectors that I wouldn’t expect, all of a sudden they know what I’m talking about. It’s actually really incredible. So I’m really thankful for that type of work.
I think on the other hand, when you look at something like Snowpiercer or really crazy things like Geostorm that are some depiction of geoengineering but not really solar geoengineering in the actual, applicable way, it’s harmful in that people are like, “What is this? This is absurd. Is it going to lead to a snowball Earth?” It’s hard when the fake science just goes so far beyond real science that you can’t really reel it in. Having to bring people back to what solar geoengineering is and what it could or could not do is challenging sometimes, in the context of things like that.
I will say I recently watched Extrapolations, which is the TV show on Apple about climate change. There was an episode about solar geoengineering, which I thought was super interesting, because I think it was probably the most accurate depiction of solar geoengineering in terms of what it is, what we do or don’t know, and how it could evolve from a research to deployment context. There was a lot I disagreed with, but it was really well done in terms of actually doing the research and depicting it in a very knowledgeable way. That’s something I would like to see more of.
I think one last thing I’ll mention that has been challenging for me, too, is that a lot of the fake depictions of solar geoengineering deployment have a country in the Global South—usually India, for some reason—deploying solar geoengineering. I understand why that’s an interesting take. It’s a Global South country that is experiencing a lot of vulnerability and views solar geoengineering as a potential method to address a lot of the suffering happening in its country. That’s something that I talk a lot about, as well.
But as we keep depicting it in that way, I think it’s going to become really problematic in taking away the story and the narrative from these countries themselves, because all of these stories are being written—I think almost entirely—by Global North authors. We’re taking away the power for them to tell their own stories and to talk about how they view their role in this space, potentially, before we build our own perceptions of it. That’s one of the problems I see, and I hope we start to see shifts and different types of stories and different storytellers.
Daniel Raimi: That is such an interesting point. I hadn’t thought about that. So you’re not going to be starting your capacity building meetings with a showing of Geostorm?
Shuchi Talati: Probably not.
Daniel Raimi: Well, for those listeners who haven’t seen Geostorm, I can’t say I would recommend it, but—
Shuchi Talati: I do not recommend it.
Daniel Raimi: But if you want to see the most extreme of the extreme takes on geoengineering, it’s one to at least look up. But let’s go from recommending things not to see, to recommending things to see. So Shuchi, what’s at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack—something that you’ve read or watched or heard that you think is great and that you think our audience would enjoy?
Shuchi Talati: Yeah, I mean, I do want to recommend that episode of Extrapolation, because I think it was really interesting. I think the episode after it was even more interesting to me, because it depicted a version of an Indian community living through extreme heat in ways that I hadn’t seen depicted before that were very real. In ways where they had to shift their hours to only going outside at night, to where access to oxygen was limited by income. It just changed their ways of life in ways that were depicted in just very real, understandable ways. I thought it was really interesting.
But the other thing I’ll recommend that is not a happy topic, but I thought it was a really interesting piece, was a story in ProPublica that came out last week around climate migration and the extent to which it could happen. I don’t think we’ve really internalized the extent to which this catastrophe is going to push humanity to its brink in really hard ways. I think especially in the United States, we view ourselves as probably more immune to some of these impacts because of just where we are. We’re not experiencing the same impacts that we’re seeing in a lot of more vulnerable areas, but this idea of massive climate migration will impact everyone. This article talked about how close to a third of humanity will likely need to move and will feel the need to escape the lives that climate change has created for them. It was really devastating, and I think it’s one of those things where it’s become a term that we talk about, but I don’t think these numbers have really been driven home. I think I’m still processing them, as well, to be honest.
I mean, it was really stark, but I think it’s also really important for us to recognize as we continue to move past 1.2°C and to 1.5°C and likely beyond that every 10th of a degree leads to someone not being able to live in their home. It was a really important article that also made this topic much more accessible. I always love ProPublica’s reporting, but this was just a really interesting piece.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Well, thank you for both those recommendations, and we’ll have links to both of them in the show notes. One more time, I’ll just say thank you to you, Shuchi Talati from the Alliance for Just Deliberation for Solar Geoengineering for coming on and talking about this really challenging, really complex, and really important topic. We really appreciate it.
Shuchi Talati: I really appreciate you having me, and I just really value the conversation.
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