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

Lutsko, Nicholas J., Jacob T. Seeley, and David W. Keith. “Estimating Impacts and Trade‐offs in Solar Geoengineering Scenarios With a Moist Energy Balance Model.” Geophysical Research Letters 47, no. 9 (2020). Publisher's VersionAbstract
There are large uncertainties in the potential impacts of solar radiation modification (SRM) and in how these impacts depend on the way SRM is deployed. One open question concerns trade‐offs between latitudinal profiles of insolation reduction and climate response. Here, a moist energy balance model is used to evaluate several SRM proposals, providing fundamental insight into how the insolation reduction profile affects the climate response. The optimal SRM profile is found to depend on the intensity of the intervention, as the most effective profile for moderate SRM focuses the reduction at high latitudes, whereas the most effective profile for strong SRM is tropically amplified. The effectiveness of SRM is also shown to depend on when it is applied, an important factor to consider when designing SRM proposals. Using an energy balance model allows us to provide physical explanations for these results while also suggesting future avenues of research with comprehensive climate models.
Horton, Joshua B., Penehuro Lefale, and David Keith. “Parametric Insurance for Solar Geoengineering: Insights from the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Assessment and Financing Initiative.” Global Policy, no. Special Issue (2020). Publisher's VersionAbstract
Solar geoengineering (SG) entails using technology to modify the Earth's radiative balance to offset some of the climate changes caused by long‐lived greenhouse gases. Parametric insurance, which delivers payouts when specific physical indices (such as wind speed) cross predefined thresholds, was recently proposed by two of us as a compensation mechanism for SG with the potential to ease disagreements about the technology and to facilitate cooperative deployment; we refer to this proposal as reduced‐rate climate risk insurance for solar geoengineering, or ‘RCG’. Here we probe the plausibility of RCG by exploring the Pacific Catastrophe Risk Assessment and Financing Initiative (PCRAFI), a sovereign risk pool providing parametric insurance coverage against tropical cyclones and earthquakes/tsunamis to Pacific island countries since 2013. Tracing the history of PCRAFI and considering regional views on insurance as compensation necessitates reconfiguring RCG in a way that shifts the focus away from bargaining between developed and developing countries toward bargaining among developed countries. This revised version of RCG is challenged by an assumption of broad developed country support for sovereign climate insurance in the developing world, but it also better reflects the underlying incentive structure and distribution of power.
Keith, David, and Peter Irvine. “Halving warming with stratospheric aerosol geoengineering moderates policy-relevant climate hazards.” Environmental Research Letters 15, no. 4 (2020). Publisher's VersionAbstract
Stratospheric aerosol geoengineering is a proposal to artificially thicken the layer of reflective aerosols in the stratosphere and it is hoped that this may offer a means of reducing average climate changes. However, previous work has shown that it could not perfectly offset the effects of climate change and there is a concern that it may worsen climate impacts in some regions. One approach to evaluating this concern is to test whether the absolute magnitude of climate change at each location is significantly increased (exacerbated) or decreased (moderated) relative to the period just preceding deployment. In prior work it was found that halving warming with an idealized solar constant reduction would substantially reduce climate change overall, exacerbating change in a small fraction of places. Here, we test if this result holds for a more realistic representation of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering using the data from the geoengineering large ensemble (GLENS). Using a linearized scaling of GLENS we find that halving warming with stratospheric aerosols moderates important climate hazards in almost all regions. Only 1.3% of land area sees exacerbation of change in water availability, and regions that are exacerbated see wetting not drying contradicting the common assumption that solar geoengineering leads to drying in general. These results suggest that halving warming with stratospheric aerosol geoengineering could potentially reduce key climate hazards substantially while avoiding some problems associated with fully offsetting warming.
MacMartin, Douglas, Peter Irvine, Ben Kravitz, and Joshua Horton. “Technical characteristics of a solar geoengineering deployment and implications for governance.” Climate Policy 19, no. 10 (2019): 1325-1339. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Consideration of solar geoengineering as a potential response to climate change will demand complex decisions. These include not only the choice of whether to deploy solar engineering, but decisions regarding how to deploy, and ongoing decisionmaking throughout deployment. Research on the governance of solar geoengineering to date has primarily engaged only with the question of whether to deploy. We examine the science of solar geoengineering in order to clarify the technical dimensions of decisions about deployment – both strategic and operational – and how these might influence governance considerations, while consciously refraining from making specific recommendations. The focus here is on a hypothetical deployment rather than governance of the research itself. We first consider the complexity surrounding the design of a deployment scheme, in particular the complicated and difficult decision of what its objective(s) would be, given that different choices for how to deploy will lead to different climate outcomes. Next, we discuss the on-going decisions across multiple timescales, from the sub-annual to the multi-decadal. For example, feedback approaches might effectively manage some uncertainties, but would require frequent adjustments to the solar geoengineering deployment in response to observations. Other decisions would be tied to the inherently slow process of detection and attribution of climate effects in the presence of natural variability. Both of these present challenges to decision-making. These considerations point toward particular governance requirements, including an important role for technical experts – with all the challenges that entails.
Keith, David, and Joshua Horton. “Multilateral parametric climate risk insurance: a tool to facilitate agreement about deployment of solar geoengineering?Climate Policy (2019). Publisher's VersionAbstract
States will disagree about deployment of solar geoengineering, technologies that would reflect a small portion of incoming sunlight to reduce risks of climate change, and most disagreements will be grounded in conflicting interests. States that object to deployment will have many options to oppose it, so states favouring deployment will have a powerful incentive to meet their objections. Objections rooted in opposition to the anticipated unequal consequences of deployment may be met through compensation, yet climate policy is inhospitable to compensation via liability. We propose that multilateral parametric climate risk insurance might be a useful tool to facilitate agreement on solar geoengineering deployment. With parametric insurance, predetermined payouts are triggered when climate indices deviate from set ranges. We suggest that states favouring deployment could underwrite reduced-rate parametric climate insurance. This mechanism would be particularly suited to resolving disagreements based on divergent judgments about the outcomes of proposed implementation. This would be especially relevant in cases where disagreements are rooted in varying levels of trust in climate model predictions of solar geoengineering effectiveness and risks. Negotiations over the pricing and terms of a parametric risk pool would make divergent judgments explicit and quantitative. Reduced-rate insurance would provide a way for states that favour implementation to demonstrate their confidence in solar geoengineering by underwriting risk transfer and ensuring compensation without the need for attribution. This would offer a powerful incentive for states opposing implementation to moderate their opposition.
Vattioni, Sandro, Debra Weisenstein, David Keith, Aryeh Feinberg, Thomas Peter, and Andrea Stenke. “Exploring accumulation-mode H2SO4 versus SO2 stratospheric sulfate geoengineering in a sectional aerosol–chemistry–climate model.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 19 (2019). Publisher's VersionAbstract
Stratospheric sulfate geoengineering (SSG) could contribute to avoiding some of the adverse impacts of climate change. We used the SOCOL-AER global aerosol–chemistry–climate model to investigate 21 different SSG scenarios, each with 1.83 Mt S yr−1 injected either in the form of accumulation-mode H2SO4 droplets (AM H2SO4), gas-phase SO2 or as combinations of both. For most scenarios, the sulfur was continuously emitted at an altitude of 50 hPa (≈20 km) in the tropics and subtropics. We assumed emissions to be zonally and latitudinally symmetric around the Equator. The spread of emissions ranged from 3.75 S–3.75 N to 30 S–30 N. In the SO2 emission scenarios, continuous production of tiny nucleation-mode particles results in increased coagulation, which together with gaseous H2SO4 condensation, produces coarse-mode particles. These large particles are less effective for backscattering solar radiation and have a shorter stratospheric residence time than AM H2SO4 particles. On average, the stratospheric aerosol burden and corresponding all-sky shortwave radiative forcing for the AM H2SO4 scenarios are about 37 % larger than for the SO2 scenarios. The simulated stratospheric aerosol burdens show a weak dependence on the latitudinal spread of emissions. Emitting at 30 N–30 S instead of 10 N–10 S only decreases stratospheric burdens by about 10 %. This is because a decrease in coagulation and the resulting smaller particle size is roughly balanced by faster removal through stratosphere-to-troposphere transport via tropopause folds. Increasing the injection altitude is also ineffective, although it generates a larger stratospheric burden, because enhanced condensation and/or coagulation leads to larger particles, which are less effective scatterers. In the case of gaseous SO2 emissions, limiting the sulfur injections spatially and temporally in the form of point and pulsed emissions reduces the total global annual nucleation, leading to less coagulation and thus smaller particles with increased stratospheric residence times. Pulse or point emissions of AM H2SO4 have the opposite effect: they decrease the stratospheric aerosol burden by increasing coagulation and only slightly decrease clear-sky radiative forcing. This study shows that direct emission of AM H2SO4 results in higher radiative forcing for the same sulfur equivalent mass injection strength than SO2 emissions, and that the sensitivity to different injection strategies varies for different forms of injected sulfur.
Heyen, Daniel, Joshua Horton, and Juan Moreno-Cruz. “Strategic implications of counter-geoengineering: Clash or cooperation?Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 95 (2019): 153-177. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Solar geoengineering has received increasing attention as an option to temporarily stabilize global temperatures. A key concern is that heterogeneous preferences over the optimal amount of cooling combined with low deployment costs may allow the country with the strongest incentive for cooling, the so-called free-driver, to impose a substantial externality on the rest of the world. We analyze whether the threat of counter-geoengineering technologies capable of negating the climatic effects of solar geoengineering can overcome the free-driver problemand tilt the game in favour of international cooperation. Our game-theoreticalmodel of countries with asymmetric preferences allows for a rigorous analysis of the strategic interaction surrounding solar geoengineering and counter-geoengineering.We find that countergeoengineering prevents the free-driver outcome, but not always with benign effects. The presence of counter-geoengineering leads to either a climate clash where countries engage in a non-cooperative escalation of opposing climate interventions (negative welfare effect), a moratorium treaty where countries commit to abstain from either type of climate intervention (indeterminate welfare effect), or cooperative deployment of solar geoengineering (positivewelfare effect).We show that the outcome depends crucially on the degree of asymmetry in temperature preferences between countries.
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.