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SEAS Researchers Postpone Test Flight for Controversial Geoengineering Project To Block Sun

Through the project, the SEAS researchers aim to better understand solar geoengineering, a controversial strategy that could be used to curb global warming.
Through the project, the SEAS researchers aim to better understand solar geoengineering, a controversial strategy that could be used to curb global warming. By Jacqueline S. Chea
By Natalie L. Kahn and Simon J. Levien, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: April 5, 2021 at 5:25 p.m.

Harvard researchers announced Wednesday they will postpone a test flight for a controversial environmental engineering project — the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment — after pushback from an Indigenous peoples’ group in Sweden.

Through the project, known as “SCoPEx,” School of Engineering and Applied Sciences engineering professor Frank N. Keutsch’s research group plans to release a small amount of particles into the stratosphere to test whether those particles could reflect sunlight back to space.

According to the Keutsch research group’s website, the project’s goal is to better understand solar geoengineering, a controversial strategy that could be used to curb global warming. The project is supported in part by philanthropist Bill Gates through SEAS’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program.

The Keutsch group planned its first test flight for June 2021, which would have launched a high-altitude balloon over Kiruna, Sweden, but would not have included the release of the particles. On Wednesday, however, the Swedish Space Corporation suspended the test under pressure from the Saami Council, which represents Indigenous Scandinavian peoples.

In a Wednesday statement, the SSC reaffirmed that the SCoPEx project “fits well” into its mission to advance climate change research, but wrote that it decided to suspend the test after conversations with geoengineering experts, stakeholders, and the SCoPEx Advisory Board.

“As a result of these dialogues and in agreement with Harvard, SSC has decided not to conduct the technical test flight planned for this summer,” the statement reads. “Whether or not research on geoengineering should be conducted is an important discussion that should continue within the scientific community, as well as with other stakeholders and the general public.”

In its Wednesday statement, the SCoPEx Advisory Committee noted it was “grateful for the vigorous input and feedback it has received,” and announced a review of the project’s impacts to strengthen “societal engagement."

“The Committee will conduct a listening-based engagement activity in Sweden in order to help the Committee understand Swedish and Indigenous perspectives and make an informed and responsive recommendation about the equipment test flights,” the Committee wrote.

The project will likely be postponed until 2022 to allow time for those reviews, according to the statement.

In a Feb. 21 letter, the president of the Saami Council criticized SCoPEx for its potential negative impacts on the area’s natural resources. The heads of three Swedish environmental advocacy groups — the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Friends of the Earth Sweden, and Greenpeace Sweden — cosigned the letter.

“We note that [releasing particles into the stratosphere] is a technology that entails risks of catastrophic consequences, including the impact of uncontrolled termination, and irreversible sociopolitical effects that could compromise the world’s necessary efforts to achieve zero-carbon societies,” the Council wrote in the letter. “There are therefore no acceptable reasons for allowing the SCoPEx project to be conducted either in Sweden or elsewhere.”

The Council went on to criticize the researchers’ failures to consult with those the test allegedly puts at risk.

“We find it remarkable that the project has gone so far as to establish an agreement with [the Swedish Space Corporation] on test flying without, as we understand, having applied for any permits or entered into any dialogue with either the Swedish government, its authorities, the Swedish research community, Swedish civil society, or the Saami people, despite the controversial nature of SCoPEx,” it wrote.

SEAS Applied Physics professor David W. Keith, one of the faculty spearheading SCoPEx, said he disagrees with the Saami Council’s conclusion that the project could put people at risk.

“It's totally legitimate for them to say that, but I think it’s important to say that that’s not consistent with what most climate scientists have said,” said Keith, who also holds an appointment as a Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School. “Three of the biggest U.S. environmental groups — none of them agree with that.”

He also disputed the Saami Council’s characterization of the researchers’ engagement with stakeholders in Sweden. Keith said the researchers did consult with Swedish researchers and the Swedish government, emphasizing that the SSC is affiliated with the Swedish government. The SSC is a wholly government-owned enterprise.

Keith added that the researchers wrote to the Saami Council offering a conversation to discuss the project after the Council expressed some concerns about its risks, but the Council turned him down.

In a Monday interview, Saami Council Vice President Åsa Larsson-Blind acknowledged that the initial SCoPEx test has limited risks, but said her organization is “very, very” against the testing of solar geoengineering projects “anywhere,” citing long-term risks.

“It was a test that was very clearly a piece of the puzzle for SCoPEx in their work to test out solar geoengineering technology, and that is what we are objecting,” she said.

Larsson-Blind acknowledged the SSC is a state-owned company, but drew the distinction between the SSC and the Swedish government at-large. She added that the Saami Council has also sent letters to the SSC and several Swedish ministries.

Larsson-Blind said she was disappointed the researchers did not inform the Saami Council of their testing plans prior to the Council’s open letter. However, she said, the Council turned down the invitation to meet because that would be akin to “negotiation.”

“It’s an experience that we share with many Indigenous peoples around the world: the notion of dialogue and consultations may be misused,” Larsson-Blind said. “A dialogue would be seen as a negotiation, that if they made some adjustments, the tests can go ahead, and we would be fine with the testing. But this is not that kind of issue.”

Selena F. Wallace, SEAS coordinator for environmental research, said in a Thursday interview that the June test flight would not have involved emitting any particles into the atmosphere.

“This test flight would not necessarily mean that the particle release flight would happen in Sweden,” she said. “It’s just to collect information about how the balloon — and how the equipment — travels in the stratosphere.”

Wallace also said the researchers understand the importance of receiving input from those potentially affected by the research.

“We want to ensure that we’re setting a positive precedent on how we are interacting with civil society and the public,” she said. “That’s a broader conversation in the long run.”

Keith told the New York Times that the researchers are considering moving their test to the United States.

Larsson-Blind said that no matter where the test moves, Indigenous peoples will speak out against it because it “goes to the core of our worldview.”

“This is something that so very clearly collides with what we believe in, that we should respect nature,” she said. “We should be the ones adapting to nature and to the environment, not the other way around.”

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @natalielkahn.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

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