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R.E.S.I.L.I.E.N.C.E.R. Project

Ramifications of Experimentation into SRM In Light of its Impacts on Existential, Negative-state and Civilizational Endangering Risks

The RESILIENCER project seeks to investigate how research and experimentation into SRM could impact the risk of human extinction, civilisational collapse and other global catastrophes, and how it could interact with changes to humanity's long-run trajectory. The project will investigate how SRM research and experimentation may both increase or decrease both direct hazards to humanity and our civilization's vulnerability and exposure to these risks, using a risk-risk framework comparing plausible scenarios with and without SRM research and experimentation. A range of mechanisms and pathways by which these could be realised will be identified, as well as further steps that could be taken to better clarify the risk landscape. Utilising this, the project will be able to inform decision-makers whether SRM research and experimentation is relevant to considerations of humanity’s long-term future, and what and whether any type of research and experimentation should be supported or avoided.

What is SRM?

Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), also known as Solar Geoengineering, is a set of technologies that seek to reduce global temperature by increasing the amount of sunlight (shortwave radiation) reflected by the Earth (also known as increasing the Earth's albedo). A set of closely related technologies, which will also be referred to as SRM for the sake of this project, which increase the amount of longwave radiation reflected. 

The three main methods discussed are Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, which involves adding aerosols to the stratosphere inspired by the natural effect of volcanoes, Marine Cloud Brightening, involving injecting seawater into clouds to increase their brightness, and Cirrus Cloud Thinning, which involves seeding cirrus clouds to cause them to thin. These technologies are at various levels of development, and we are still unaware of their efficacy or many of their positive or negative effects.

Whilst these technologies may be able to reverse much of the "global warming," it isn't the same as reversing climate change. A climate, even with the same level of warming, with elevated CO2 levels and SRM isn't the same as one where we avoided the emissions in the first place; it is likely more dangerous and more unstable. SRM may have a variety of regional effects which are very imperfectly modelled. From a governance perspective, SRM is exceptionally difficult, where countries may disagree over the ideal amount of SRM to do, potentially leading to conflict.

What are X-Risks/GCRs?

Extistential Risks (X-Risks), as per Nick Bostrom's definition, is a risk that threatens humanity's long-term potential, which includes the direct extinction of humanity, irrecoverable societal collapse, or the lock-in of a global totalitarian dictatorship. Global Catastrophic Risks are risks that have the potential to wage death and destruction on a global scale. A Civilizational Endangering Risk is a risk that could cause a large-scale loss of complexity.

These risks could be considered to be made up of three components: Hazards (what actually causes the destruction), Vulnerabilities (what makes civilization vulnerable to the hazard) and Exposures (the intersection between hazards and exposures). Whilst there is a relatively extensive literature on GCRs, there have been very few papers linking GCRs to SRM, and an only s;lightly larger literature linking them to clijmate change. Thus, it may be that the present frameworks for understanding these risks are insufficent, and a new framework will need to be come up with for the RESILIENCER Project. 

What questions does the project try to answer?

Firstly, the project is focused on working out the relationship between SRM research and the actions that relevant actors make. The famulti-dimensional nature of these relationships will be analysed, and what sort of research programmes make what sort of actions more or less likely.

Secondly, the relationship between different deployment schemes and GCRs (and the other risks considered) will be explored. In particular, three key questions will be answered. Firstly, whether there are certain deployment schemes that are really important in the context of these risks. Secondly, whether there are certain deployment schemes which enormously increase these risks, and finally whether there are certain deployment schemes that could decrease the risks. These deployment scenarios will inherently be speculative, although some estimate of the likelihood of each scenario will try and be developed.

These two strands will then be combined, in combination with other work, to answer whether research into SRM is an important consideration for those people who care about GCRs and the other risks the project focuses on. It will also more importantly answer what sort of research (if any) increases or reduces GCRs in expectation.

On 12th September, the RESILIENCER Project will be carrying out a workshop at Utrecht University, to try and gather a diversity of opinions on the subject.