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Why scientists need public backing to engineer the climate

  • 19 Aug 2014, 12:35
  • Mat Hope

PiccoloNamek

As greenhouse emissions rise, scientists want to research the possibility of engineering the climate to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

But the public has so far been wary of such schemes. So the so-called geoengineers are planning to make a declaration they hope will be the first step to getting a "social license" to operate.

The world's most prominent geoengineering researchers are meeting in Berlin this week to discuss the field's progress. Attendees have been asked to provide feedback on a draft document styled as the Berlin Declaration, released by VICE this morning.  

It seeks to clarify geoengineering's governing principles, and quell public concerns. But does it go far enough?

Building blocks

A lot of climate engineering sounds a bit sci-fi - from drawing carbon dioxide out of the oceans by dumping iron filings in the sea, to putting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from earth. We've gone into much more detail, here.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) takes geoengineering seriously, even if it gets a relatively small amount of attention in its reports, with the panel eager to emphasise the technique's risks. Nonetheless, its  modelled scenarios where geoengineering is used to lower atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.

But much more research is necessary before such methods can become widespread, or even shown to work, scientists say.

Geoengineers have been discussing how to get public backing for a long time. The draft declaration lays out a series of principles to govern further research, based on the conclusions of previous meetings:

  1. Geoengineering should be in the public interest, and regulated to ensure this.
  2. The public should be involved in deciding whether geoengineering goes ahead or not - particularly people potentially affected by the technology.
  3. Geoengineering research should be transparent, with results published and made available to the public.
  4. Independent researchers not involved in the geoengineering projects should assess the potential impact of schemes.
  5. Governance structures should be in place before geoengineering schemes are rolled out.

The Berlin Declaration draft adds a penalty clause, calling on "funding organisations and scientific and professional bodies to withhold approval or endorsement" of projects that don't show how they'll meet the criteria. Failure to do so, it says, "will seriously undermine the scientific integrity and public legitimacy of such experimental work".

Agencies

While codifying previously agreed principles could help assuage the public, the declaration may raise more questions than it answers. For instance, who holds the geoengineers to account?

A paper released last year called for a new international agency to be set up to regulate geoengineering.

It said the best way to ensure only the most well thought-out experiments got the go ahead would be for the IPCC, United Nations Framework on Climate Change, and a new climate engineering agency to review proposals. Between them, the agencies could coordinate and control the distribution of geoengineering funding.

The Berlin document also skirts the issue of when experiments stop being research and become outright engineering - obscurely referred to as a "bright line boundary" in the draft text.

Social license

But the scientific community appears to agree that public acceptance is necessary if the field is to progress from scientists' notebooks to widespread experiments.

The public has shown its ability to obstruct technological developments with chequered environmental records in other areas - from fracking to roads, via pretty much everything else.

Geoengineering has already seen its own controversies. In 2011, public action group Hands Off Mother Earth sent a letter to the secretary of state expressing opposition to a project based on creating artificial clouds to prevent sunlight warming the earth's surface, known as SPICE. That experiment was later cancelled due to patent complications. But at the very least, the episode showed public opposition could complicate things for the scientists.

If geoengineering is to play a part in mitigating climate change, attaining what the Berlin Declaration draft describes as a "social license to operate" becomes increasingly urgent. Whether such initiatives are enough to  persuade the public and governments that the benefits of researching geoengineering outweigh the risks remains to be seen.

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