David Keith - Interdisciplinary Research on Solar Geoengineering

Led by David Keith, the Keith Group supports a broad range of interdisciplinary research on solar geoengineering that coincides with the three broad tracks of SGRP’s work. For example:

Science and technology

  • Understanding accumulation mode particle injection using 2D and 3D atmospheric models
  • Developing predictive models of the plume evolution from aircraft or balloons in the stratosphere.

Assessing Efficacy and Risks

  • Assessing the particulate health risks to humans from stratospheric aerosol injection
  • Understanding the inequality of climate response to solar geoengineering for the most important climate hazards

Governance options and social implications

  • Elicitation of expert judgments about solar geoengineering in China
  • Applying index-based insurance as a means to manage risk compensation

Learn more about The Keith Group.

David Keith

David Keith

Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Publications

Svoboda, Toby, Peter Irvine, Daniel Callies, and Masahiro Sugiyama. “The potential for climate engineering with stratospheric sulfate aerosol injections to reduce climate injustice.” Journal of Global Ethics (2019). Publisher's VersionAbstract
Climate engineering with stratospheric sulfate aerosol injections (SSAI) has the potential to reduce risks of injustice related to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Relying on evidence from modeling studies, this paper makes the case that SSAI could have the potential to reduce many of the key physical risks of climate change identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Such risks carry potential injustice because they are often imposed on low-emitters who do not benefit from climate change. Because SSAI has the potential to reduce those risks, it thereby has the potential to reduce the injustice associated with anthropogenic emissions. While acknowledging important caveats, including uncertainty in modeling studies and the potential for SSAI to carry its own risks of injustice, the paper argues that there is a strong case for continued research into SSAI, especially if attention is paid to how it might be used to reduce emissions-driven injustice.
Irvine, Peter, Kerry Emanuel, Jie He, Larry Horowitz, Gabriel Vecchi, and David Keith. “Halving warming with idealized solar geoengineering moderates key climate hazards.” Nature Climate Change (2019). Publisher's VersionAbstract

Solar geoengineering (SG) has the potential to restore average surface temperatures by increasing planetary albedo, but this could reduce precipitation. Thus, although SG might reduce globally aggregated risks, it may increase climate risks for some regions. Here, using the high-resolution forecastoriented low ocean resolution (HiFLOR) model—which resolves tropical cyclones and has an improved representation of present-day precipitation extremes—alongside 12 models from the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project (GeoMIP), we analyse the fraction of locations that see their local climate change exacerbated or moderated by SG. Rather than restoring temperatures, we assume that SG is applied to halve the warming produced by doubling CO2 (half-SG). In HiFLOR, half-SG offsets most of the CO2-induced increase of simulated tropical cyclone intensity. Moreover, none of temperature, water availability, extreme temperature or extreme precipitation are exacerbated under half-SG when averaged over any Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Extremes (SREX) region. Indeed, for both extreme precipitation and water availability, less than 0.4% of the ice-free land surface sees exacerbation. Thus, while concerns about the inequality of solar geoengineering impacts are appropriate, the quantitative extent of inequality may be overstated.

 

Horton, Joshua B.Parametric Insurance as an Alternative to Liability for Compensating Climate Harms.” Carbon & Climate Law Review 12, no. 4 (2018): 285-296. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Interstate compensation for climate change based on legal liability faces serious obstacles. Structural incongruities related to causation, time, scope, and scale impede application of tort law to climate change, while political opposition from developed countries prevents intergovernmental consideration of liability as a means of compensating for climate damages. Insurance, however, in particular parametric insurance triggered by objective environmental indices, is emerging as a promising alternative to liability. This is manifest in the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, which ruled out recourse to legal liability, and in the formation and expansion of regional sovereign climate risk insurance schemes in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific. Theory and early practice suggest that parametric insurance exhibits five key advantages compared to legal liability in the climate change context: (1) it does not require that causation be demonstrated; (2) it has evolved to provide catastrophic coverage; (3) it is oriented toward the future rather than the past; (4) it is contractual, rather than adversarial, in nature; and (5) it provides a high degree of predictability. Compensation based on parametric insurance represents a novel climate policy option with significant potential to advance climate politics.
Irvine, Peter J., David W. Keith, and John Moore. “Brief communication: Understanding solar geoengineering's potential to limit sea level rise requires attention from cryosphere experts.” The Cryosphere 12 (2018): 2501-2513. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Stratospheric aerosol geoengineering, a form of solar geoengineering, is a proposal to add a reflective layer of aerosol to the stratosphere to reduce net radiative forcing and so to reduce the risks of climate change. The efficacy of solar geoengineering at reducing changes to the cryosphere is uncertain; solar geoengineering could reduce temperatures and so slow melt, but its ability to reverse ice sheet collapse once initiated may be limited. Here we review the literature on solar geoengineering and the cryosphere and identify the key uncertainties that research could address. Solar geoengineering may be more effective at reducing surface melt than a reduction in greenhouse forcing that produces the same global-average temperature response. Studies of natural analogues and model simulations support this conclusion. However, changes below the surfaces of the ocean and ice sheets may strongly limit the potential of solar geoengineering to reduce the retreat of marine glaciers. High-quality process model studies may illuminate these issues. Solar geoengineering is a contentious emerging issue in climate policy and it is critical that the potential, limits, and risks of these proposals are made clear for policy makers.
Horton, Joshua B., Jesse L. Reynolds, Holly Jean Buck, Daniel Callies, Stefan Schäfer, David W. Keith, and Steve Rayner. “Solar Geoengineering and Democracy.” Global Environmental Politics (2018): 5-24. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Some scientists suggest that it might be possible to reflect a portion of incoming sunlight back into space to reduce climate change and its impacts. Others argue that such solar radiation management (SRM) geoengineering is inherently incompatible with democracy. In this article, we reject this incompatibility argument. First, we counterargue that technologies such as SRM lack innate political characteristics and predetermined social effects, and that democracy need not be deliberative to serve as a standard for governance. We then rebut each of the argument’s core claims, countering that (1) democratic institutions are sufficiently resilient to manage SRM, (2) opting out of governance decisions is not a fundamental democratic right, (3) SRM may not require an undue degree of technocracy, and (4) its implementation may not concentrate power and promote authoritarianism. Although we reject the incompatibility argument, we do not argue that SRM is necessarily, or even likely to be, democratic in practice.
Parker, Andy, and Peter Irvine. “The Risk of Termination Shock From Solar Geoengineering.” Earth's Future 6 (2018): 456-467. Publisher's VersionAbstract
If solar geoengineering were to be deployed so as to mask a high level of global warming, and then stopped suddenly, there would be a rapid and damaging rise in temperatures. This effect is often referred to as termination shock, and it is an influential concept. Based on studies of its potential impacts, commentators often cite termination shock as one of the greatest risks of solar geoengineering. However, there has been little consideration of the likelihood of termination shock, so that conclusions about its risk are premature. This paper explores the physical characteristics of termination shock, then uses simple scenario analysis to plot out the pathways by which different driver events (such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or political action) could lead to termination. It then considers where timely policies could intervene to avert termination shock. We conclude that some relatively simple policies could protect a solar geoengineering system against most of the plausible drivers. If backup deployment hardware were maintained and if solar geoengineering were implemented by agreement among just a few powerful countries, then the system should be resilient against all but the most extreme catastrophes. If this analysis is correct, then termination shock should be much less likely, and therefore much less of a risk, than has previously been assumed. Much more sophisticated scenario analysis—going beyond simulations purely of worst‐case scenarios—will be needed to allow for more insightful policy conclusions.
Eastham, Sebastian D., Debra K. Weisenstein, David W. Keith, and Steven R. H. Barrett. “Quantifying the impact of sulfate geoengineering on mortality from air quality and UV-B exposure.” Atmospheric Environment (2018). Publisher's VersionAbstract
Sulfate geoengineering is a proposed method to partially counteract the global radiative forcing from accumulated greenhouse gases, potentially mitigating some impacts of climate change. While likely to be effective in slowing increases in average temperatures and extreme precipitation, there are known side-effects and potential unintended consequences which have not been quantified. One such consequence is the direct human health impact. Given the significant uncertainties, we take a sensitivity approach to explore the mechanisms and range of potential impacts. Using a chemistry-transport model, we quantify the steady-state response of three public health risks to 1 °C global mean surface cooling. We separate impacts into those which are “radiative forcing-driven”, associated with climate change “reversal” through modification of global radiative forcing, and those “direct impacts” associated uniquely with using sulfate geoengineering to achieve this. We find that the direct (non-radiative forcing driven) impact is a decrease in global mortality of ∼13,000 annually. Here the benefits of reduced ozone exposure exceed increases in mortality due to UV and particulate matter, as each unit of injected sulfur incurs 1/25th the particulate matter exposure of a unit of sulfur emitted from surface sources. This reduction is exceeded by radiative forcing-driven health impacts resulting from using sulfate geoengineering to offset 1 °C of surface temperature rise. Increased particulate matter formation at these lower temperatures results in ∼39,000 mortalities which would have been avoided at higher temperatures. As such we estimate that sulfate geoengineering in 2040 would cause ∼26,000 (95% interval: −30,000 to +79,000) early deaths annually relative to the same year without geoengineering, largely due to the loss of health benefits associated with CO2-induced warming. These results account only for impacts due to changes in air quality and UV-B flux. They do not account for non-mortality impacts or changes in atmospheric dynamics, and must be considered in the wider context of other climate change impacts such as heatwave frequency and sea level rise.
Parker, Andy, Joshua Horton, and David Keith. “Stopping Solar Geoengineering Through Technical Means: A Preliminary Assessment of Counter-Geoengineering.” Earth's Future (2018). Publisher's VersionAbstract
Counter-geoengineering is the idea that a country might seek or threaten to counteract the cooling effect of solar geoengineering through technical means. Although this concept has been mentioned with increasing frequency in commentary on geoengineering, it has received little scholarly attention. We offer a preliminary analysis. We begin by distinguishing two kinds of counter-geoengineering: countervailing with a warming agent, and neutralising with a physical disruption. Based on this distinction, we review prior suggestions and describe novel methods by which either method might be accomplished, within the constraints imposed by deep technical uncertainties and substantial technical challenges. We then reflect on the strategic requirements and motivations for developing counter geoengineering and use a simple game-theoretic framework to demonstrate how counter-geoengineering might interact with the free-driver dynamic of solar geoengineering to shape climate geopolitics. We find that any state that could credibly threaten counter-geoengineering would effectively have a veto over the use of solar geoengineering, which could reduce the prospects of unilateral deployment. Alternatively, the development of geoengineering and countergeoengineering capabilities could lead to dangerous brinkmanship. We conclude that the development of counter-geoengineering would face considerable practical obstacles and would signal continuing political failure to manage climate risks on a cooperative basis.
Smith, Jordan P., John Dykema, and David Keith. “Production of Sulfates Onboard an Aircraft: Implications for the Cost and Feasibility of Stratospheric Solar Geoengineering.” Earth and Space Science (2018). Publisher's VersionAbstract
Injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, a form of solar geoengineering, has been proposed as a means to reduce some climatic changes by decreasing net anthropogenic radiative forcing. The cost and technical feasibility of forming aerosols with the appropriate size distribution are uncertain. We examine the possibility of producing the relevant sulfur species, SO2 or SO3, by in situ conversion fromelemental sulfur onboard an aircraft. We provide afirst-order engineering analysis of an open cycle chemicalplant for in situ sulfur to sulfate conversion using a Brayton cycle combustor and a catalytic converter. We find that such a plant could have sufficiently low mass that the overall requirement for mass transport to the lower stratosphere may be reduced by roughly a factor of 2. All else equal, this suggests that—for a given radiative forcing—the cost of delivering sulfate aerosols may be nearly halved. Beyond reducing cost, the use of elemental sulfur reduces operational health and safety risks and should therefore reduce environmental side effects associated with delivery. Reduction in cost is not necessarily beneficial as it reduces practical barriers to deployment, increasing the urgency of questions concerningthe efficacy, risks, and governance of solar geoengineering.
MacMartin, Douglas G., Katharine L. Ricke, and David W. Keith. “Solar geoengineering as part of an overall strategy for meeting the 1.5°C Paris target.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 376, no. 2119 (2018).Abstract
Solar geoengineering refers to deliberately reducing net radiative forcing by reflecting some sunlight back to space, in order to reduce anthropogenic climate changes; a possible such approach would be adding aerosols to the stratosphere. If future mitigation proves insufficient to limit the rise in global mean temperature to less than 1.5°C above preindustrial, it is plausible that some additional and limited deployment of solar geoengineering could reduce climate damages. That is, these approaches could eventually be considered as part of an overall strategy to manage the risks of climate change, combining emissions reduction, net-negative emissions technologies and solar geoengineering to meet climate goals. We first provide a physical science review of current research, research trends and some of the key gaps in knowledge that would need to be addressed to support informed decisions. Next, since few climate model simulations have considered these limited-deployment scenarios, we synthesize prior results to assess the projected response if solar geoengineering were used to limit global mean temperature to 1.5°C above preindustrial in an overshoot scenario that would otherwise peak near 3°C. While there are some important differences, the resulting climate is closer in many respects to a climate where the 1.5°C target is achieved through mitigation alone than either is to the 3◦C climate with no geoengineering. This holds for both regional temperature and precipitation changes; indeed, there are no regions where a majority of models project that this moderate level of geoengineering would produce a statistically significant shift in precipitation further away from preindustrial levels. This article is part of the theme issue ‘The Paris Agreement: understanding the physical and social challenges for a warming world of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.
Dai, Zhen, Debra Weisenstein, and David Keith. “Tailoring Meridional and Seasonal Radiative Forcing by Sulfate Aerosol Solar Geoengineering.” Geophysical Research Letters 45 (2018).Abstract
We study the possibility of designing solar radiation management schemes to achieve a desired meridional radiative forcing (RF) profile using a two-dimensional chemistry-transport-aerosol model. Varying SO2 or H2SO4 injection latitude, altitude, and season, we compute RF response functions for a broad range of possible injection schemes, finding that linear combinations of these injection cases can roughly achieve RF profiles that have been proposed to accomplish various climate objectives. Globally averaged RF normalized by the sulfur injection rate (the radiative efficacy) is largest for injections at high altitudes, near the equator, and using emission of H2SO4 vapor into an aircraft wake to produce accumulation-mode particles. There is a trade-off between radiative efficacy and control as temporal and spatial control is best achieved with injections at lower altitudes and higher latitudes. These results may inform studies using more realistic models that couple aerosol microphysics, chemistry, and stratospheric dynamics.