Planet hacking: not just a technological challenge

  • 19 Jan 2012, 16:00
  • Bárbara Mendes-Jorge

Although geoengineering has many fervent champions and detractors, more than any 'pro' or 'con' it is most importantly defined by uncertainty.

Scientists working in the area say that there are no methods which currently offer solutions to resolving climate change, and there's a distinct lack of governance and guidelines on the issue in the worlds of both science and politics. So progressive think tank The Policy Network tackled the topic last week as part of a series of seminars on politics and climate change, promising a non-partisan look at the areas of concern surrounding geoengineering.

Chaired by Anthony Giddens (ex-LSE director and author of Politics of Climate Change), the event's speakers were three Royal Society bigwigs: John Shepherd (former chair of its geoengineering group) Martin Rees (a former President) and James Wilson (former director of the RS's Science Policy Centre) who summarised the current status of geoengineering, beginning with:

"None of the geoengineering methods evaluated offers an immediate solution to the problem of climate change, or reduces the need for continued emissions reductions".

That was the conclusion of an influential 2009 Royal Society geoengineering report, and it still stands today, Shepherd said.

Echoing the report's key recommendation, he added that it was important to differentiate between geoengineering's two main techniques - Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). SRM techniques, (which involve changing the amount of sunlight hitting the planet), could be quickly deployed and are relatively cheap - even within the budgets of major corporations, perhaps - while CDR is more expensive and could take decades to implement.

Martin Rees called for a rapid implementation of guidelines for scientists and policymakers as a necessary precursor to actually undertaking any geoengineering. He also noted that the emotive reaction to the initial Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) test, where scientists planned to pump water into the lower atmosphere to see what happened, proved how 'climate mediation' is still highly controversial. Unless these issues are resolved, geoengineering will remain at an impasse.

Finally, James Wilson outlined two "faultlines" of current thinking on geoengineering. Firstly, he said, conventional economics and risk assessments have taken only a narrow look at the topic - geoengineering, he argued, is too complex a subject to reduce to a conventional cost-benefit analysis.

Secondly, geoengineering should not be treated as "something to fall back on" as this attitude has impeded serious policy debate. He criticised the "weak" NGO response on the issue because - he said - it gave space to marginal voices wishing to oversimplify the debate. He praised a few organisations for their attempts to engage with civil society, and welcomed recent funding given to a few British universities to research geoengineering governance.

It might have been good to have a wider selection of speakers from other organisations. Notably, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers has urged the government to integrate geoengineering as soon as possible into its climate policy strategy, and it would have been interesting to have this approach defended. It would have also been good to have a representative from an NGO as a speaker - some NGOs are unequivocally against geoengineering, others have softened their tone.

Nevertheless, with a diverse audience present, the subsequent Q&A session was interesting. Initial discussion focused on the problems with labelling this complex subject 'geoengineering' - are there problems with lumping such different approaches together under the same label? Shepherd responded that the Bipartisan Policy Center's 2010 report was criticised for replacing the 'geoengineering' label with 'climate mediation'.

A social scientist said he had found in his research that people saw geoengineering as both a social and technical experiment and were made uneasy by its "authoritarian nature" (although a recent report suggests that some sections of the public are supportive of further research on geoengineering).

A representative from the NGO 'Matter' spoke of her experiences talking to Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson's representatives. Branson has invested in carbon capture technologies but is apparently avoiding calling it 'geoengineering' due to the negative connotations the label evokes.

The audience-led section was perhaps the more illuminating part of the seminar, but as is usually the case few of the concerns raised came close to being resolved. The wider debate on the subject has similarly unresolved issues and juxtaposed opinions. Policy Exchange, for example, says:

"Given the continued increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere it is possible that the world will have to turn to … geoengineering. In current form virtually all energy sources are surrounded by controversy of one sort or another".

It seems clear that before we get to that stage there are some pretty big questions - even about how to begin assess geoengineering techniques John Shepherd optimistically believes that the discussion of geoengineering is at a stage where it could be used to set a precendent for open engagement on a scientific issue. We'll wait and see.

Policy Network also ran an event on shale gas this week, and there will be one on nuclear power on 26th January.

(Update 20/01/12: the 'mystery' social scientist mentioned above is Jack Stilgoe from Exeter University)

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