At the controls: should we consider geoengineering?

Towards the end of 2010 I wrote a post sketching out the current state of the science of geoengineering: the justification, the methods, and the effects. I closed by explaining that there is more than just the science to consider.

It is obvious that something as profoundly significant as altering the climate system must be strongly regulated. Whoever had control of the dial (note it is not a button – we will have more precise control over the temperature and there will be conflict over what level to set it at) would have more power than any human being ever. In January 2010 a group of five academics produced the Oxford Principles, by which, they recommended, the future of geoengineering should be governed. In summary:

    1. Geoengineering to be regulated as a public good.
    2. Public participation in geoengineering decision-making.
    3. Disclosure of geoengineering research and open publication of results.
    4. Independent assessment of impacts.
    5. Governance before deployment.
Geoengineering provokes strong opinions

These principles were accepted by the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee and discussed in a House of Commons report. They are a worthy attempt, but they only scratch the surface in terms of the issues geoengineering raises. What about environmental impacts? One of the motivations for acting on climate change is to protect ecosystems and biodiversity. What if the cure was as bad as the disease? This raises the issue of reversibility. It is important to be able to control geoengineering to reduce any unforeseen side-effects, stopping it quickly and ideally being able to reverse it.

These concerns are only the ones raised in the academic sphere. Currently the public is unfamiliar with geoengineering. A 2010 survey found that 50% of people had not heard of it at all. People did not comprehend it in any great detail. In the NERC Experiment Earth project members of the public (85 in total) were consulted in more detail. When they were initially introduced to the idea the mood was approximately neutral. People did not know enough to make judgements. As they learned more they began to develop considered viewpoints, and their opinions diverged. They became more polarised, with those approving generally also being those who were most concerned about climate change.

In November 2010 the Royal Society held an open meeting on geoengineering, combining scientific expertise with experts from the social sciences, Dr. Margaret Leinen pointed out that things were just moving too fast for humanity to keep up. In the space of a century or so humanity has gone from being a species at the mercy of climate change, to one forcing this change, to one with the power to control it. Our sociopolitical structures cannot evolve that fast, and our values and beliefs change even more slowly than that. Geoengineering calls into question our very ideas about our species’ relationship with the planet.

Jonathon Porritt, co-founder of Forum for the Future, gave a thoughtful, eloquent talk in the afternoon of the second day, expressing his concerns for the future. ‘Humanity has behaved in an irrational, scientifically illiterate way in bringing about climate change. Are we to expect it to be rational and scientifically literate now?’ This is a powerful and unsettling question. Is our intelligence such that we are capable of great technological feats, but incapable of understanding the implications or the consequences?

The feeling in the room was that no one was advocating geoengineering. Emissions reduction remained the foremost goal, but it would be highly prudent to consider these options and inform ourselves of them. Environmental scientist and attorney Brad Allenby was right when he said: ‘Ignorance has never held us back from action.’ Therefore it really is prudent to investigate this area. And yet scientists tend to become rather isolated creatures. Porritt was concerned that they would take the calm, rational attitude displayed at the meeting as a sign that all was well. He read some quotes from supporters of geoengineering.

If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn’t be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.’
– Sir Richard Branson.

Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year. Instead of penalising ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific invention…Bring on the American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.
– Newt Gingrich.

The opinions of the rich and powerful were highlighted in a report by the ETC group on geoengineering. It is strongly against the idea, and is a useful read if only to guard against complacency. We must be alert to the extreme voices on either side of the debate.

Might these kind of people take over without scientists realising? This has happened to some degree in the larger climate debate. Voices like the ones above have been allowed to influence the public mind while the rational voice has been overshadowed. It is important that scientists tackle these people head-on. The public need to understand geoengineering at a deep level. They need to understand climate science at a deeper level too, but that’s another (though intimately related) fight. They need to understand that solar radiation management (SRM – geoengineering schemes designed to reduce the amount of incoming solar radiation) will do nothing to stop the acidification of the oceans and its significant impacts on marine ecosystems, that any climate achieved will be the result of a delicate balance and easily perturbed, that mitigation is still a better option. Dr Naomi Vaughan’s results showed that aggressive mitigation action taken immediately would do as well, if not better, than waiting and, in combination with SRM, reforesting double the amount of area humans have deforested. It is easy to get seduced by geoengineering. People might think it’s an easy way out. It is not. Equally, scientists must be clear that geoengineering is not inherently evil. We are already altering our climate system. Paul Crutzen coined the term ‘Anthropocene’ for the era during which humans have had significant impacts on the planet. Perhaps we will even leave an indelible mark in the geological record.

The balancing act here is a delicate one. People need to understand both the pros and cons. Geoengineering is not a magic bullet. Nor is it always wrong. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) would help us create a global carbon price directly related to a physical process, rather than the artificial (and too low) prices arbitrarily specified under current carbon trading schemes. In this sense, geoengineering of this sort could be very helpful in driving emissions mitigation. We must be clear that ‘Plan A’ (emissions reduction) has not failed.

In these posts I have tried to give a sense of what a minefield the topic of geoengineering is. It covers such a wide range of concepts and disciplines. It is an exciting field to work in, but also one in which it is important to keep informed and to get things right. The Royal Society produced a very good report on geoengineering in September 2009. For a different outlook, try the report by the ETC group. For more detail on what actually went on at the meeting, look out for an account in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A in 2011.

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