Climate Engineering May Be the Key to Fighting Global Warming


  • Solar Radiation Management attempts to offset effects of increased greenhouse gas concentrations by causing the Earth to absorb less solar radiation
  • SRM technology has yet to be fully developed and its risks are not understood, but benefits appear to outweigh R&D costs

While most scientists believe climate change is a reality, the question of how to best combat global warming is far from decided. The most promising approach could emerge from a controversial and largely unproven field known as geo-engineering (aka climate engineering) — an intentional large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system.

J. Eric Bickel, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Graduate Program in Operations Research (Department of Mechanical Engineering), discussed findings from his research into climate engineering during a Nov. 1 Energy Symposium lecture on the University of Texas Campus. 

During his presentation, Dr. Bickel, who also serves as a fellow in the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, provided highlights from papers he co-authored in 2009 and 2012 as part of his participation in the Copenhagen Consensus Project. The analyses focused on the potential benefits, costs and risks of climate engineering concepts that feature Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques.

In general, SRM attempts to offset effects of increased greenhouse gas concentrations by causing the Earth to absorb less solar radiation. This approach contrasts with CO2 removal techniques, which focus on eliminating greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

After reviewing 15 papers on how to best reduce harm from climate change, an expert panel of distinguished economists, including four Nobel Laureates, concluded that R&D into SRM techniques would be a very good use of resources.

In particular, the papers submitted by Dr. Bickel and his research partner, Lee Lane, a Visiting Fellow with the Hudson Institute, focused on marine-cloud whitening and research into stratospheric aerosol injection.

Their work is predicated on the following suppositions:

  • Anthropogenic emissions of CO₂ are warming the earth; while the effects of global warming remain uncertain, they will result in economic damage.
  • It is unlikely that negotiations over climate change policies will have a significant impact on global temperatures for decades to come.
  • Emissions reductions, even steep ones, do not eliminate the possibility of significant global warming.
  • SRM techniques could lower the risk of climate change tipping points (e.g., loss of Arctic sea ice, melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and irreversible destruction of the Amazon rain forest), but the technology has yet to be developed and its risks are not understood.

Integral to Dr. Bickel’s work is his use of the Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and Economy (DICE) model, which enables researchers to plug in an assortment of variables – including temperature change limits – to assess the effect of various emissions reduction plans on economic activity. The model is designed to produce an optimal way of lowering CO₂ emissions over time.

Bickel emphasized that though the net benefits of SRM appear to far exceed the R&D costs required for developing such technology, additional research is needed to assess its viability and any side effects associated with this and other approaches to climate engineering.

The weekly UT Energy Symposium series, held on Thursday evenings from 5 p.m.–6:30 p.m., provides a platform for students from across campus to interact with speakers on a variety of energy issues, from global diffusion of energy technologies and the behavioral aspects of energy consumption to innovations in carbon capture and climate change policy.