I f you can think of something, there’s probably a scientist studying it. There are researchers looking into naked mole rat breeding patterns, the aerodynamics of cricket balls, and that people tend to like pizza better than beans. But there are also certain experiments that scientists generally don’t do. They don’t, for instance, genetically modify humans, or clone them. They don’t conduct psychology experiments without subjects’ informed consent. And there’s a whole host of experimental medical procedures that could teach us a lot, but no one would ever be justified to try.
Many scientists have long thought of experiments to inject chemicals into the earth’s atmosphere in order to cool the climate, known as stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), as falling within that taboo category—arguing developing the technology could pose serious planetary risks. But some researchers have been working to alter that perception in recent years, splitting the climate science community. In recent months, the field has seen a surge in momentum: last month the U.N. Environment Programme called for more research into geoengineering, while reports emerged last summer that the Biden Administration has begun coordinating a five-year research plan. Rogue researchers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs meanwhile conducted small scale tests late last year and in February, despite condemnation from much of the scientific community.
All that attention has added fuel to the smoldering disagreements among climate scientists, creating what is likely the most significant rift in the world of atmospheric science and climate studies in years. Academic factions have published a series of dueling petitions as part of an increasingly visible and contentious battle for control of the scientific narrative—and ultimately over how to tackle climate change as emissions continue to rise. One side says that humanity may doom itself by refusing to look into potential chemical means of cooling our atmosphere. The other claims that undertaking such research could lead to disastrous consequences that we can barely imagine.