Bob James Photo Bangkok/shutterstock
Bob James Photo Bangkok/shutterstock

Over the past year-plus, a series of government and philanthropic funding announcements suggest that the contentious idea of temporarily cooling the planet by reflecting sunlight into space—most commonly known as solar geoengineering—may be gaining traction.

At the end of 2019, the U.S. government set aside $4 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor the stratosphere and assess potential interventions. In June 2020, the Department of Energy funded $15 million in research projects, a portion of which further the study of atmospheric science related to solar geoengineering.

In October 2020, the nonprofit SilverLining launched a $3 million initiative backed by several funders to support five university research programs investigating methods to block solar radiation. And in November, Open Society Foundations shared with Inside Philanthropy that its new $40 million Climate Action Initiative will fund gatherings of experts and philanthropists on the governance and regulation of such technologies.

At the same time, Democrats have included government research on the topic in their legislative agenda, and a team at Harvard is planning the first test of solar geoengineering this summer in a remote part of Sweden.

Yet geoengineering remains highly controversial. To supporters, it offers a chance to stave off the worst of climate catastrophe and mitigate human suffering as we complete a transition to a carbon-free world. To opponents, it is yet another hubristic human intervention that threatens dire—and not fully understood—repercussions.

Likely because of the controversy, only a small list of donors and foundations have delved into geoengineering—including Bill Gates, John and Laura Arnold, and the Hewlett and Sloan foundations—and some who fund in this space are either highly skeptical or flat-out opposed to it. But private dollars do make up a large proportion of the limited funding to date, and recent developments suggest institutional philanthropy may begin to look more closely at geoengineering. If so, it’s the kind of fledgling field where the sector could exert outsize influence.

“The SilverLining initiative isn’t that big, but it might be diagnostic of a larger-scale change in the orientation of philanthropy” with respect to solar geoengineering research, said Edward Parsons, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, one of a small list of U.S. institutions that has received grants to do such research.

“My sense is that the big foundations are watching the space very closely and trying to decide whether and what they’re going to do in it.” He added that action may “depend heavily on the priorities of Biden.”

At this potential tipping point, I spoke to several experts to get a sense of who is involved in this field, where U.S. funding has gone to date, and what funders might consider as they weigh whether to get involved—either to support more research or to develop rules that govern, or even block, deployment.

What exactly is solar geoengineering? 

It is a mark of the controversy around this technology that even what to call it is debated. There is a wide range of phrases used, such as “solar radiation management,” but the most common is solar geoengineering. Some proponents, such as Kelly Wanser, the executive director of SilverLining, say “solar climate intervention” is more appropriate, even more scientifically accurate. Some opponents also prefer that term, saying “engineering” suggests a careful calibration, when we don’t yet know much about the technology’s potential impacts.

Since “geoengineering” is used by people with a wide range of perspectives on this debate, that is what I’ve predominantly used in this article. The term is also often conflated with carbon dioxide removal or other interventions, but for the purposes of this article, it refers only to solar intervention technologies, which aim to reflect sunlight from Earth, thereby cooling the planet, an effect that has occurred naturally following large volcanic eruptions.

The most commonly discussed approach, stratospheric aerosol injection, would add reflective particles into the upper atmosphere. Another method, marine cloud brightening, would use sea salt to create clouds that reflect sunlight. Most discussion considers using it on a planet-wide basis, but some research looks at localized attempts, such as above coral reefs or other vulnerable geographies.

Who has funded geoengineering to date?

Funding for solar geoengineering is rare. Between 2008 and 2019, only 36 projects on the topic were funded, globally, according to a blog post and accompanying chart by Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program. While it does not claim to be exhaustive, the post is known as the most comprehensive overview of the issue’s funding landscape.

Total philanthropic support during that entire period was less than $20 million, with nine out of 10 dollars spent in North America, according to the post. Yet foundations accounted for more than twice as much funding as government sources in North America, adding up to $18 million versus $7 million, with most private funding going to policy and regulation research, rather than advancing the technology.

Institutional funders in the space include those supporting policy development, such as the Alfred P. Sloan and Oak foundations, and those whose funding has also supported technology research, including the Open Philanthropy Project and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Funding levels were low enough that the Harvard post argues volunteer research is a substantial and unaccounted share of current activity. “Nobody supports me for GeoMIP. I do all of that on nights and weekends,” one researcher told the group.

Unfortunately, that’s about all the big-picture data that exists. Lizzie Burns, managing director of the Harvard program and one of the authors of the post, said she’s not aware of any effort to update figures in the last couple years. But anecdotally, she’s seen more publications, more governments taking it seriously and a modest rise in funding. “The trend line is still up,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s significantly higher.”

Individuals also play a large role in the field’s funding, especially when it comes to scientific research. The Harvard program, which according to its own statistics is the single-most-funded player in the field, with at least $16 million in grants and pledges as of its blog post, lists 15 institutional supporters and 13 individual donors, with the latter including well-known philanthropists like Bill Gates and Laura and John Arnold. Gates supports the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research, which is co-administered by David Keith, the Harvard program’s lead scientist, but with his personal funds, not through the Gates Foundation.

Similarly, SilverLining’s list of public supporters include five individual sponsors and four institutional funders. Most of its individual sponsors are venture capitalists, including Bill Trenchard and Matt Cohler, an early member of the teams at LinkedIn and Facebook. Google engineer Dan Scales is also a backer, as is Crystal and Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital investment fund. All but Scales supported SilverLining’s recent round of grants.

“It’s a stage,” said Kelly Wanser, executive director of SilverLining. “This is a very new space. It’s been controversial, so it’s more difficult. The space needs more validation and more maturity for other foundations and other types of funders to come in.”

Rachel Pritzker, the president and founder of Pritzker Innovation Fund, which funds both the Harvard program and SilverLining, likened the shortage of institutional funding to areas like advanced nuclear and the early stages of carbon removal technology, which her institution has also supported. “Individuals move faster. I think they have less inertia built in,” said Pritzker, who also serves on SilverLining’s board.

But the concentration and makeup of those backers gives pause even to some supporters. “You worry about the agenda of knowledge being driven by two dozen rich tech guys,” said Parsons. “Not that I think that rich tech guys are bad, but they have their idiosyncratic preferences.”

Funding the rules that govern—or even prevent—geoengineering

To date, governance—the question of what types of international agreements and frameworks are needed to guide possible use of this technology—has been a major focus of philanthropy. Most U.S. funders working in the geoengineering space have supported some type of work in this area, and for some, it is the only funding they provide in the field.

For instance, the small, New York-based V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, which declined to comment for this story, makes grants on the “urgent need for governance and legal frameworks” on both research and use of geoengineering. Past grants by the Oak and Alfred P. Sloan foundations were also related to governance.

Similarly, after examining the landscape in 2017, the Open Philanthropy Project, which also declined to comment, concluded “there is globally very little work” focused on improving governance, and thus recommended a grant to one such organization as “an opportunity to build a sparse field.”

Support from such quarters has bolstered a range of governance groups, including C2G (aka the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative) and the U.K.-based Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative.

Parsons cautioned against considering funding for governance as a sign of support for climate intervention. “Most of the governance work that has been supported has had a strongly unfavorable prior bias,” he said. “Foundations have tended to fund work that is strongly skeptical.”

In fact, in some cases, the foundations working in this space are among the strongest opponents of the technology. The Heinrich Boell Foundation, headquartered in Germany, is perhaps the most prominent in this camp.

The institution, which did not respond to a request for comment, has published dozens of factsheets and papers on geoengineering. It has also partnered with the ETC Group, a nonprofit that is perhaps the most well-known geoengineering opponent, to create a map tracking ongoing projects. It has called the approach “a dangerous distraction” and “a patriarchal fallacy to save ‘business as usual.’”

New funding to study the “how” of geoengineering

SilverLining’s grants, on the other hand, focus on research, not governance. The five awards went to research centers, including three affiliated with academic institutions: University of Washington, Cornell University and Rutgers University.

“What we’ve been able to do here is help catalyze the ecosystem,” said Wanser. “Before, the only funded program really was the Harvard program.”

There is a lot to study. Experts and some studies have suggested such intervention could deepen droughts, magnify monsoons, and have other as-yet unknown fallout on complex weather and climate patterns. The effort, if done atmospherically, could damage the ozone layer—which protects us all from solar radiation.

The awardees are mostly focused on running computer models and data analyses of climate interventions to study possible methods of injecting particles into the atmosphere as well as potential impacts on weather patterns, agriculture and other global systems. One program, at the University of Washington, looks at marine cloud brightening, a method of making clouds reflect more sunlight.

“The exciting thing about this small amount of money is the catalyzing effect it can have,” said Wanser, who has a TED Talk on climate intervention with 1.8 million views. “We think this is the highest leverage funding in climate. This has the potential to act more quickly than any other approach.”

Why proponents believe the field lacks funding—but should be a priority 

Perhaps the most common argument against geoengineering is that it poses a moral hazard. In other words, the prospect of a “quick fix” will lead both individuals and leaders to relax their efforts to transition away from burning fossil fuels. Proponents I spoke with counter this concern by suggesting that when people learn such an extreme step may be necessary, it could actually underscore the gravity of the threat. But the moral hazard issue seems to be the major barrier to funding.

“The biggest reservation that we’ve seen for funders around the climate issue is the concern that this would impair other efforts to address the root cause of climate change,” Wanser said. “That’s been the number one reservation of philanthropists in this space and their ability to move forward.”

Controversy is another factor. “It’s a tricky space for donors, in part because of the concerns about public perception,” agreed Pritzker, noting that geoengineering is often caught up in the “chem trail” conspiracy theory.

But for Pritzker, it’s about exploring all of the options for mitigating climate catastrophe. “Big climate funding has a herd mentality. It focuses on one potential set of policy approaches and a narrow set of technology platforms,” she said. “That just seems like a risky approach.”

Pritzker, one of many heirs of the Hyatt hotel chain, is not new to this debate. Along with David Keith, the head of Harvard’s SGRP, she was one of the co-signers of An EcoModernist Manifesto, which argued that economic growth and technological progress were key to protecting the natural world. She has argued on this site for a broader array of approaches in climate philanthropy.

While the actual execution of geoengineering is relatively cheap, Wanser estimates that tens of millions of dollars would be needed to answer questions about the impacts or desirability of the technology. And the timeline is long. Some argue the research is owed to our children, as only by starting now will we know enough to deploy it, if necessary. “This is not a quick worksheet thing to understand,” Pritzker said. “It’s a complex, many-years process, to even know whether it’s wise or if it’s feasible.”

In fact, people arguing for more funding and research into geoengineering often say it is too early to know whether we would ever want to implement it, but that we do need to understand it.

“Given the complexity of solar geoengineering, we really need more eyes on this subject, particularly skeptical eyes,” Burns said. “People inclined to believe this might not work are the ones I’d particularly like to research this subject.”

Concerns over equity and industry exploitation

Beyond the moral hazard concern, other scientific and moral arguments against geoengineering boil down to concerns that the technology is far too risky, it would uphold a bad status quo, and ultimately is not necessary. And when considered as a funding choice, one argument is particularly common: Money would be better spent elsewhere.

Funders should invest instead in climate solutions that are already working but underfunded, said Sarah Shanley Hope, vice president of brand and partnerships at the Solutions Project, which advocates for a transition to 100% clean energy with a focus on empowering grassroots organizations in communities of color.

“Technologies like solar engineering are frankly a distraction,” she told me. “It’s taking a risk on a silver bullet that doesn’t need to be shot.”

As an alternative, Hope points to the mixture of brownfield rescue, solar energy, wind power, green landscaping and other projects that residents have led in Buffalo, New York, that not only fight climate change but also create local jobs. “I would put my $100 million there, in those solutions,” she said.

This is a point of contention for supporters. Some, like Pritzker and Edwards, believe it’s impossible to cut emissions swiftly enough to prevent climate calamities, particularly given growing energy use in the Global South. Others, like Burns, say the transition may be possible, but the risk that those efforts will not scale in time make it vital also to pursue this technology. Studies can be found to support both arguments.

Angela Mahecha Adrar, executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, which is a member of a coalition opposing climate geoengineering, said she’s concerned that such technologies “often get tested in sacrifice zones, or Black and brown communities.” Others in the climate justice community are concerned that, if deployed, the technology could actually worsen conditions—from intensifying regional weather to damaging crop yields—in the same impoverished countries, largely in the Global South, facing the worst of climate change.

The solar geoengineering community has made some moves to include scientists who live in the world’s most vulnerable regions in its debates. The DECIMALS Fund, which is run by a coalition including the Environmental Defense Fund, gave $430,000 in grants to scientists in the Global South to research how solar radiation management could impact the world’s poorest countries and most climate-vulnerable regions. Grants have gone to teams in Bangladesh, Benin, Iran and Indonesia.

More broadly, Adrar sees such technology as continuing business as usual, giving a lifeline to the same companies that have benefitted from an extractive economy, rather than focusing on the transformation this crisis demands. “They help the fossil fuel industry stay in the game of pollution rather than help communities reach the reductions they need, not only for themselves but for the planet,” she said.

It’s a concern shared, at least in part, by some of the technologies’ proponents. “I do worry that fossil fuel companies will kind of exploit the technology,” Burns told me. In fact, several backers said they were concerned about private sector geoengineering efforts, in some cases as an argument for philanthropic spending.

“The problem of commercial investment in a space that’s too early like this is that it can complicate objective science,” said Wanser. Similarly, the website of David Keith’s research group notes: “We strongly oppose commercial work on solar geoengineering. The narrow engineering costs are so cheap that, if anything, one problem might be it is too cheap.”

The “Greenfinger” threat

One concern that is particularly salient in the philanthropic sector, a realm bustling with billionaires, is the possibility of a rogue attempt at “fixing” the climate. Experts estimate global deployment of the technology would cost between $1 billion and $10 billion a year. With roughly 2,000 billionaires in the world, nearly a third of whom are American, a small but not inconsequential group of individuals could privately bankroll such a move.

“The fact that solar geoengineering direct deployment costs are several billion dollars a year is certainly something that’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Burns.

Yet proponents say such a concern confuses the technology’s low cost with low barriers. Highly specialized equipment is needed, and such purchases would raise red flags. National armies could easily and rapidly stop any independent effort, as widespread emission takes time.

For some, deployment by a rogue nation-state is a more credible risk—and further cause for investments in governance and research, arguing that monitoring the atmosphere is the only short-term way to determine whether any nation is engaging in such an effort.

What’s next?

It’s been said that the debate over geoengineering is largely between those who believe it’s a horrible idea and those who are horrified to acknowledge it may be necessary. Every proponent I spoke to said they wished such a step was not necessary, but feared it was, and wanted the world to be ready.

“People are seeing it as a horrible, temporary Band-Aid for something that needs real surgery,” said Burns. Pritzker, citing the slow pace of the energy transition, put it more simply: “I’m demoralized.”

While geoengineering is frightening new territory for many, there are chapters in our history that might offer some clarity for funders circling this debate. Oliver Morton, whose book “The Planet Remade” is about geoengineering, argues that one good analog is human intervention in the nitrogen cycle. It’s an area where philanthropy also played a role—and whether funders judge that intervention was a worthy and responsible one may be one litmus test of their interest in geoengineering.

“It wasn’t something that just happened. It was something that senior chemists wanted to happen. It was something that institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation, and the U.S. government, and the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party wanted to happen. It was a willed thing,” he told The Atlantic.

There is one other strong analogy: the carbon emissions that have brought us to this point. To critics, trying to fight one massive, planet-wide, unintentional climate intervention with another massive, planet-wide climate intervention is the definition of insanity. The potential side effects are horrifying—and our track record is poor, as even those in the field acknowledge. “Humans, of course, have not historically done a good job of interfering with nature, thinking we’re going to cause one outcome, and we cause another,” Burns said.

Yet as the effects of climate change intensify, more may look to ideas once considered fringe. Record hurricanes, heat waves and flooding have devastated communities around the world in the past year alone. Emissions reductions are happening too slowly to meet Paris Agreement goals—and several sectors are getting worse, according to a recent report by ClimateWorks Foundation and WRI. The U.N. secretary general recently declared, “The planet is broken.”

When taking on climate change, the philanthropic sector has often seen its role primarily as a facilitator of new technology and policy. That’s definitely been the case with geoengineering funding so far.

But the debate over whether to pursue this technology seems, ultimately, just as much a matter of values. Is this life-saving chemotherapy or a Pandora’s box? Will research steer decision-makers toward the best course of action or legitimize a bad idea? Is it even possible for such an intervention to be carried out morally, much less equitably? Who, if anyone, has the right to make such a decision?

Whether funders are willing to tangle with these questions, and the answers they come up with, will determine what kind of influence philanthropy has on this issue.