Californian scientists have just made a case for geo-engineering as a solution to the climate crisis. One stratospheric technology – the reflection of incoming sunlight back into space – could do more than just lower global average temperatures.

It could also enhance the economic performance of some of the world’s poorest countries and reduce global income inequality by 50%.

“We find hotter, more populous countries are more sensitive to changes in temperature – whether it is an increase or a decrease,” said Anthony Harding, of Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California at San Diego.

“With solar geo-engineering, we find that poorer countries benefit more than richer countries from reductions in temperature, reducing inequalities. Together, the overall global economy grows.”

Uneven benefits possible

Harding and his colleagues report in the journal Nature Communications that they simply applied climate models to the consequences of a successful international collaboration to systematically reduce or reflect incoming sunlight, to compensate for the consequences of a steady increase in global average temperatures as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions.

Geo-engineering requires technologies that are not yet proven and that many scientists think may never work in any way that helps all nations evenly.

The authors acknowledge that many climate scientists are “reluctant to pursue one global climate intervention to correct for another” – a tacit recognition that humans have already inadvertently geo-engineered the climate crisis driven by global heating simply by burning fossil fuels and destroying forests. Nor do they specify a preferred version of any technology that puts sulphate aerosols or other reflecting particles into the stratosphere to reduce incoming radiation.

They simply consider the economic impacts of global temperature reductions under four different climate scenarios: if climates stabilised naturally; if temperatures went on soaring; if they were stabilised by geo-engineering; and if geo-engineering worked too well and lowered the planet’s temperature.

“A robust system of global governance will be necessary to ensure any future decisions about solar geo-engineering are made for collective benefit”

They identified historical connections between the heat of the day and the wealth of a nation. Rainfall didn’t seem to matter so much. What was important was the temperature. And in the models, temperature seemed to make all the difference.

If tomorrow’s world, thanks to geo-engineering, cooled by 3.5°C – and right now the planetary temperature seems set to rise by about that much – average incomes in countries such as Niger, Chad and Mali would rise by more than 100% in a century.

In southern Europe and the US, gains would be a more modest 20%. Impacts from country to country might vary according to each scenario. But changes in temperature driven by solar geo-engineering consistently translated, they say, into a 50% cut in global income inequality.

“We find that if temperatures cooled, there would be gains in gross domestic product per capita,” Harding said. “For some models, these gains are up to 1000% over the course of the century and are largest for countries in the tropics, which historically tend to be poorer.”

Poorest hit hardest

Researchers have consistently found that global heating brings yet more economic hardship, and even social conflict, to the world’s least developed nations: these are the countries that have benefited least from the exploitation of oil, coal and natural gas to drive wealth, and therefore contributed least to the creation of a climate crisis.

The latest study suggests that although the best way to confront the challenge is to reduce and eventually reverse greenhouse gas emissions, concerted global action – carefully agreed and executed – might in theory cool the globe and limit the losses of everybody, but especially the poorest.

There is a catch: nobody has yet agreed on the technology that would work best. And nobody knows how to achieve the other prerequisite: international co-operation.

“Our findings underscore that a robust system of global governance will be necessary to ensure any future decisions about solar geo-engineering are made for collective benefit,” the authors write.

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