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
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
That was the conclusion of an influential 2009
Royal Society geoengineering report, and it still stands today,
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
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
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
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
Jack Stilgoe from Exeter University)