Solar radiation management is increasingly considered to be an option for managing global temperatures1,2, yet the economic effects of ameliorating climatic changes by scattering sunlight back to space remain largely unknown3. Although solar radiation management may increase crop yields by reducing heat stress4, the effects of concomitant changes in available sunlight have never been empirically estimated. Here we use the volcanic eruptions that inspired modern solar radiation management proposals as natural experiments to provide the first estimates, to our knowledge, of how the stratospheric sulfate aerosols created by the eruptions of El Chichón and Mount Pinatubo altered the quantity and quality of global sunlight, and how these changes in sunlight affected global crop yields. We find that the sunlight-mediated effect of stratospheric sulfate aerosols on yields is negative for both C4 (maize) and C3 (soy, rice and wheat) crops. Applying our yield model to a solar radiation management scenario based on stratospheric sulfate aerosols, we find that projected mid-twenty-first century damages due to scattering sunlight caused by solar radiation management are roughly equal in magnitude to benefits from cooling. This suggests that solar radiation management—if deployed using stratospheric sulfate aerosols similar to those emitted by the volcanic eruptions it seeks to mimic—would, on net, attenuate little of the global agricultural damage from climate change. Our approach could be extended to study the effects of solar radiation management on other global systems, such as human health or ecosystem function.
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We thank M. Anderson, M. Auffhammer, D. Baldocchi, K. Caldeira, C. Field, A. Goldstein, D. Keith, P. Huybers, R. Kopp, D. Lobell, K. Ricke, J. Sallee and seminar participants at Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Stanford universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Allied Social Science Association Annual Meeting for useful comments. We thank I. Bolliger for his contributions to the project and all the members of the Global Policy Laboratory for their valuable feedback. We thank L. Thomason for generously sharing SAOD data used in Fig. 1a–c. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. CNH-L 1715557 and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE 1752814.
Nature thanks L. Gu and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.