Interview with Chad M. Baum, on his research into public perceptions of solar geoengineering activities in Mexico, the UK, and the US.

In this interview, Chad M. Baum discusses the research and findings of his recently published article in Environmental Politics, co-authored with Livia Fritz, Sean Low & Benjamin K. Sovacool: Like diamonds in the sky? Public perceptions, governance, and information framing of solar geoengineering activities in Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

You have just published an article in Environmental Politics. What is the key argument or finding you would like people to take from it?

The severity and frequency of climate impacts is prompting consideration of novel solutions, themselves marked by varying levels of controversy. Solar geoengineering is almost certainly among the most controversial. The fact that discussions tend to feature media and policymakers, and only to a limited extent the wider public, is a problem – especially in the wake of the first (small-scale) field trials in 2022. Our main finding, drawing on surveys of nationally representative samples in Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom, is that there is some preliminary evidence of support for development and use of stratospheric aerosol injection – such support looks to even be higher in Mexico.

What level of knowledge did you find of SAI? Could your results be understood as applicable more widely – to techno fixes in general, or were people informed about the specific consequences of this technology?

As is generally true of such research, the understanding and knowledge of the public remains very low – no more than one in six participants stated that they had previously heard of stratospheric aerosol injection. This was actually higher in Mexico, at around one in four, which is interesting since it was the location of the field trials which received the most media attention. Such awareness (which is not to say knowledge) is very likely to be an over-estimate nevertheless, given how early-stage and hypothetical this method remains.

Overall, this level of awareness is presumably representative of other forms of solar geoengineering. “Techno-fixes” in general is more questionable – to take the case of carbon dioxide removal, which is another novel solution proposed for climate change, there is evidence that the general public has much greater familiarity here, especially with approaches such as afforestation and soil carbon sequestration.

That being said, we did provide individuals with background information on stratospheric aerosol injection, how it worked, and some potential risks. When it comes to how people responded to information about activities undertaken in different countries (Mexico or United Kingdom), by different actors (universities or start-ups), or with intent to commercialize and make money, this did not seem to have much of an impact at present.

You offer a tentative finding that people in the global South might be more supportive of SAI, could this be a relationship to perceived vulnerability, or a feeling of urgency?

Yes – this was one of the most important findings of the research, as well as a pattern that is replicated in a large global, 30-country survey on climate-intervention technologies which we conducted (we hope that this will be published shortly). We identify multiple factors that positively and negatively influence support. The strongest, in a positive sense, are the belief that climate change exists, assigning to oneself the moral obligation to mitigate climate change, and perceiving science and technology as offering a solution to climate change. So, indeed, beliefs about climate change have a clear relationship with support for stratospheric aerosol injection.

However, we did also ask about perceptions of climate harm as well as whether someone had personally experienced a major natural disaster in the last three years – neither of these had a significant impact on support for SAI (once the other factors were included). The way in which perceptions of vulnerability and urgency matter here therefore seem to be more nuanced, and will require more future research.

It’s a great title, but can you explain – where do diamonds come into this? 

Thanks – the method of stratospheric aerosol injection, which is the focus of this paper, proposes that small particles be dispersed at high altitudes (in the stratosphere) in order to reflect sunlight back out into space. By imitating the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions, the aim here is that some of the adverse impacts of climate change might be diminished. Diamonds are one of the types of particles which have been considered – though sulphates are by far the most common.

Finally, what does this article mean for future research? What questions are you answering next?   

Excellent question – I would say there are three key takeaways for future research. First, though only four studies have offered any kind of comparison of support for SAI (and other climate-intervention techniques) between countries in the Global North and Global South, all have provided evidence that support tends to be higher in the Global South. This contradicts what one often reads in the popular media. I would therefore hope to see this evidence to the contrary engaged with in a constructive manner – and we urgently need more and deeper research engaging with publics in the Global South, most of all with indigenous and traditional landowner groups, to understand their concerns and, potentially, hopes for these methods.

Second, there does seem to be preliminary (though we stress, broadly hypothetical) support for stratospheric aerosol injection to proceed with being considered and even developed. This looks to be strongest in Mexico, but there are conditions and caveats. We find strong support as well for national-level regulation and oversight of these technologies (most of all in Mexico) and for campaigns to consult with and engage the public. Also, when asked about the balance of benefits to risks for stratospheric aerosol injection, participants in the three countries were mostly neutral – this indicates that the people we surveyed were not necessarily overly positive about this technique, and yet this did not stand in the way of providing some modicum of support for the time being.

Third and finally, we were motivated to see how different types of trials would be perceived by the public – driven by the Make Sunsets trial, where a Silicon Valley start-up released two test balloons in April 2022 in Baja California, Mexico (without government authorization), and then sought to capitalize on these and future efforts by selling “cooling” credits. We had hypothesized that participants who received information about such activities would be less likely to support SAI – for instance, than those reading about an activity in the United Kingdom done by those at a university and exclusively for research purposes. Differences in information however had very minimal impact. We infer that, for the time being, the public remains not very engaged on stratospheric aerosol injection, whereby such activities provoke limited outreach. More research will be needed though to see whether this finding holds elsewhere and under different conditions.  

Bio: Chad M. Baum is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Business Development and Technology at Aarhus University. Professor Baum is a behavioral scientist whose current research activities center on the social, ethical, and policy dimensions of carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management, under the auspices of the EU-funded GENIE (“GeoEngineering and NegatIve Emissions pathways in Europe”) and ELEVATE (“Enabling and Leveraging Climate Action towards Net Zero Emissions”) projects. He also continues to research social acceptance and public understanding of novel plant-breeding and food technology innovations, such as cultivated meat and CRISPR/Cas9.  

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