Tension between reducing sea-level rise and global warming through solar-radiation management


Geoengineering using solar-radiation management (SRM) is gaining interest as a potential strategy to reduce future climate change impacts1,2,3. Basic physics and past observations suggest that reducing insolation will, on average, cool the Earth. It is uncertain, however, whether SRM can reduce climate change stressors such as sea-level rise or rates of surface air temperature change1,4,5,6. Here we use an Earth system model of intermediate complexity to quantify the possible response of sea levels and surface air temperatures to projected climate forcings7 and SRM strategies. We find that SRM strategies introduce a potentially strong tension between the objectives to reduce (1) the rate of temperature change and (2) sea-level rise. This tension arises primarily because surface air temperatures respond faster to radiative forcings than sea levels. Our results show that the forcing required to stop sea-level rise could cause a rapid cooling with a rate similar to the peak business-as-usual warming rate. Furthermore, termination of SRM was found to produce warming rates up to five times greater than the maximum rates under the business-as-usual CO2 scenario, whereas sea-level rise rates were only 30% higher. Reducing these risks requires a slow phase-out of many decades and thus commits future generations.

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Figure 1: Hindcasts and projections of surface air temperature, rate of temperature change, and sea-level rise.
Figure 2: Sensitivity of global average temperature and sea-level rise to controls on the geoengineering scenarios.
Figure 3: The maximum warming rate for the period 2030–2100 as a function of the target forcing and the rate of phase-out.
Figure 4: The response of the maximum rate of temperature change and the maximum sea-level rise to the SRM scenarios.


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This study was partially supported by the World University Network, the Penn State Center for Climate Risk Management, and the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making (SES-0949710, through a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University). P.J.I. acknowledges support from a Natural Environment Research Council PhD studentship. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding entities.

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All authors jointly designed the study and wrote the paper. P.J.I. performed the model simulations and data analyses.

Correspondence to P. J. Irvine.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Irvine, P., Sriver, R. & Keller, K. Tension between reducing sea-level rise and global warming through solar-radiation management. Nature Clim Change 2, 97–100 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1351

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