An Indigenous Group’s Objection to Geoengineering Spurs a Debate About Social Justice in Climate Science

The Sámi people of Northern Sweden say blocking out the sun with reflective particles to cool the earth is the kind of thinking that produced the climate crisis in the first place.

Members of the indigenous Saami community march during a Friday for Future protest in Jokkmokk, northern Sweden on Feb. 7, 2020. Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Members of the indigenous Sámi community march during a Friday for Future protest in Jokkmokk, northern Sweden on Feb. 7, 2020. Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

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It was February in northern Sweden and the sun was returning after a dark winter. In the coming months the tundra would reawaken with lichens and shrubs for reindeer to forage in the permafrost encrusted Scandinavian mountain range. But the changing season also brought some unwelcome news to the Indigenous Sámi people, who live across northern Scandinavia, Finland and eastern Russia.

The members of the Saami Council were informed that researchers at Harvard planned to test a developing technology for climate mitigation, known as solar geoengineering, in Sápmi, their homeland. “When we learned what the idea of solar geoengineering is, we reacted quite instinctively,” said Åsa Larsson Blind, the Saami Council vice president, at a virtual panel about the risks of solar geoengineering, organized by the Center for International Environmental Law and other groups.

“This goes against our worldview that we as humans should live and adapt to nature,” she said.

The planned geoengineering project sought to limit global warming by releasing reflective particles into the stratosphere, reducing the amount of sunlight that beams down to Earth’s surface. The test, originally scheduled for June, would have been the first step in a series of small-scale experiments aimed at understanding the feasibility of combating global warming. 

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Although the test would only have focused on ensuring that a high-altitude balloon worked as designed and would not have involved any immediate atmospheric experiments, the Saami Council spoke out against it, objecting not just to the lack of consultation about research conducted on and above their lands but to any solar geoengineering development, regardless of where it took place.

After the Saami Council objected, writing letters to the Harvard researchers, their external advisory committee and the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), the balloon test was suspended until further discussion between research agencies and local stakeholders like the council could take place.

“Our research team intends to listen closely to this public engagement process to inform the experiment moving forward,” the advisory team for the research project said in a statement.

But the council’s opposition has renewed global debate about the role of geoengineering and other types of actions to reduce warming and who gets to make the decision about whether, when and where to implement them. In many ways, the controversy in Sweden is a microcosm of the broader issues: Should scientists continue to research geoengineering in the face of multiple ethical and physical risks? And how do scientists make sure that Indigenous voices are included in discussions on climate solutions?

Many climate and social justice activists object to the ethical implications of geoengineering as a solution for global warming and the potential for an untested technology to go wrong. And they warn that the fossil fuel industry could use it as a free pass to continue business as usual. 

Some scientists, meanwhile, view the idea of precluding promising geoengineering projects as potential climate solutions as equally troubling. There may come a time in the near future when such technology is urgently needed, these scientists say, and shutting down benign, preliminary experiments sets a dangerous precedent. 

The Harvard project, known as SCoPEx, or the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment, proposes to fly a balloon 12 miles above the Earth’s surface to release reflective calcium carbonate particles into the stratosphere. If successful, the SCoPEx team hopes their findings will better inform future efforts towards solar geoengineering.

Lead SCoPEx researcher Frank Keutsch said the proposed tests have no physical impact beyond that of any other balloon flight. “The same is even true for the one where we would put particles in the stratosphere,” he said. “It’s really less than a minute flight of a Boeing 747 that puts particles into the atmosphere.”  

The Saami Council’s opposition stems from a belief that geoengineering is the wrong way to approach climate change. 

“The way of thinking that humans are entitled to change and manipulate our surroundings has actually brought us into the climate crisis in the first place,” Larsson Blind said.

Asa Larsson-Blind, president of the Saami Council, at the 11th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. Credit: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images
Asa Larsson-Blind, president of the Saami Council, at the 11th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. Credit: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images

She also cited the danger of relying on the development of geoengineering technology as a solution. Because solar geoengineering presents a pathway for climate mitigation that is an alternative to reducing the burning of fossil fuels, the large corporations or nations that are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions might see it as an opportunity to avoid changing their damaging climate-practices. 

Though the Sámi people have adapted their traditional cultural practices in the face of colonization, many Sámi continue to maintain a traditional semi-nomadic livelihood in the summer, herding reindeer in addition to farming, hunting, fishing and gathering. Rapid climate change in the Arctic, as well as the extractive businesses associated with fossil fuel consumption, threaten that livelihood. Larsson Blind said that the risks that climate change poses to Sami culture are motivation to reject geoengineering as an alternative to cutting emissions. 

 “A plan B for some business somewhere might still mean that our culture will not survive, so we are sticking to the one path that we know is respectful towards nature,” she said.

Larsson Blind said that, despite opposing geoengineering, the Saami Council’s position wasn’t based on a universal disapproval of science. “I’m convinced that research and technology development will play a very important role,” she said. “But that’s not the only thing we need.”

She added: “There are no others that can transform Indigenous knowledge into needed action other than Indigenous peoples themselves. I’m confident that Indigenous peoples can play a key role in contributing to the needed transformation. For us to do that, we need to be part of the discussion.” 

SCoPEx Will Revise Their Plans

Originally, SCoPEx researchers and their advisory committee planned to invite public opinion and guidance, both globally and locally in Sweden, once the tests that involved releasing particles began. The Saami Council’s letters changed that. The suspension of the balloon test now comes with a rescheduled public engagement process that will occur before any future tests take place. 

A scientist in Sweden prepares to launch a balloon to study the ozone layer. Credit: Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images
A scientist in Sweden prepares to launch a balloon to study the ozone layer. Credit: Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images

Frank Keutsch, lead researcher of SCoPEx, said he saw this change as part of the project itself. “In many ways,” he said, “we designed SCoPEx to be an experiment both in science and [the governance involved in] how to conduct experiments.”

Keutsch said that maintaining the legitimacy and transparency of SCoPEx has been key in the project’s development. In their new plan, the SCoPEx advisory committee recognizes the need for greater engagement of Indigenous groups like the Sámi. 

After public feedback, as well as further legal, financial, and scientific review, the advisory committee said, the members will recommend whether or not the experiment should proceed.

Keutsch said he shares some of the Saami Council ethical worries about the SCoPEx project. “The biggest concern I have about doing the research, is just knowing that somebody doing research may be a disincentive for people to cut emissions,” he said.

Even despite that risk, he and the external SCoPEx advisory committee view the research as necessary to better prepare for a future in which geoengineering has to be implemented. 

“People often fail to fully consider that there are both significant risks of conducting tests and significant risks from not conducting tests,” a committee spokeswoman said in an email. 

Keutsch added, “I believe the science is important, so to be clear, I do want to continue these experiments.

Keutsch said he wants to have a conversation with Saami Council members to better understand their position on solar geoengineering. 

The advisory committee has reached out to the Saami Council to discuss how to “acknowledge [the Saami Council’s] concerns and have given a commitment to reconnect and engage should any future flight be proposed in their region.” 

But, Larsson Blind said, the Saami Council wants the conversation to be about the efficacy of geoengineering rather than SCoPEx’s future activities in Sweden, which is what the council understood the invitation for discussion to be. The council has sent a second letter to Harvard, signed by 35 other Indigenous groups across the world, this time calling for a complete shutdown of SCoPEx. 

Broken Trust

The back-and-forth between the Saami Council and SCoPEx is part of a larger, continuing discussion about how to seek Indigenous perspectives on climate research and adaptation when the history of colonization persists in today’s scientific pursuits.

In a recent editorial in Science magazine, Robin Bronen, at the Alaska Institute for Justice, and Patricia Cochran, Executive Director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, wrote, “Scholars continue colonization when Indigenous Tribes are not represented in, or consulted for permission to do, research on their communities and lands.” The Saami Council’s interaction with SCoPEx may be one example of how the historical traumas of colonization can make Indigenous groups reluctant to engage in further discussion if trust has already been broken, whether intentionally or not.

Kyle Whyte, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, has studied the role of Indigenous peoples in geoengineering discussions across the globe. He has found that Indigenous perspectives on whether climate practices should be supported often are sought only after the projects are fully developed. 

“There’s a large academic literature that shows you can’t make up a solution and then try to persuade Indigenous people to go along with it. It’s just not democratic,” he said. Instead, Whyte said, research needs to adopt “a consensus process before any ideas have crystallized.”

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Whyte, a professor at University of Michigan and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, said that Indigenous people’s motivations for finding climate solutions often include urgent factors other than researchers’ goals of stopping global warming and lowering emissions. 

“There are tribes right now that are having to relocate, tribes that can’t practice cultural ways, and communities experiencing direct violence from extractive industries operating in their territories,” said Whyte, “To suggest that our understanding of the solutions are the same [as that of non-Indigenous researchers] is ridiculous.”

The Risks of Stopping Research

While the Saami Council said that conducting any research on solar geoengineering presented high risks, SCoPEx and other scientists have said that not conducting research could be even riskier. Some researchers argue that global emissions aren’t dropping fast enough to reach the goal identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Ken Caldeira, a scientist at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science who researches pathways to net-zero carbon emissions, said there may come a time when solar geoengineering is urgently needed. The worst case scenario, he said, is that solar geoengineering is deployed in haste without a full understanding of all the consequences. Doing the research could help prevent any unknown—and unwanted—repercussions. 

Jessica Hellman, director of the Institute on the Environment at University of Minnesota, who has argued for better collaboration between geoengineering researchers and ecologists, said,  “Science could help navigate the complexities of risk. I guess there is an underlying assumption that if you study something, you’re just going to enable it to happen.”

Instead, Hellman said, “Maybe the science helps figure out like ‘Oh wow, that’s harder than we thought. Maybe we shouldn’t do it.’ ”

There are also implications for science as a whole. Caldeira, who is also a senior scientist at Breakthrough Energy, said, “The precedent of stopping experiments that are in themselves benign and that do not have any expectation of leading to any sort of imminent harm—that it’s a very dangerous precedent.”

Yet, what is benign to one group may not be considered benign by another. Jennie Stephens, the director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, agreed with Whyte’s view that more effort was needed toward climate solutions that also include social change. Solely focusing on the technical solutions to climate change and not investing the same amount in social innovation and justice, she said, has resulted in climate action that exacerbates inequities and disparities

“We won’t be able to make the transformative changes that we need until and unless we focus on social justice,” said Stephens.

The Way Forward

To Hellman, these are questions that are pressing not only for geoengineering but for climate adaptation as a whole. “This is just the first of so many potential debates about proper stewardship of the planet in the face of concerns about catastrophic climate change,” she said, “I think it’s wise for [SCoPEx] not to push forward in the face of discontent, especially with Indigenous groups.”

Keutsch said he thinks it’s important that scientists “find mechanisms where a diverse range of voices will be heard.” He said one lesson from Sweden was to seek collaboration earlier. 

“I was always very hesitant to go out and try to engage scientists globally. I always thought it’s really pretentious to go out and say to other scientists ‘Do you want to be part of this experiment?’ when I don’t even know if it works.”

Whether Indigenous knowledge holders and climate researchers can work together to find solutions relies on their ability to repair relationships. Said Whyte: “I think the question really is, is there a future where Indigenous people and scientists from academic institutions, like Harvard, will have adequate levels of trust and consent and reciprocity and accountability to be able to make responsible decisions together.”