Why scientists need public backing to engineer the climate
- 19 Aug 2014, 12:35
- Mat Hope
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
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
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?
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
- Geoengineering should be in the public interest, and regulated
to ensure this.
- The public should be involved in deciding whether
geoengineering goes ahead or not - particularly people potentially
affected by the technology.
- Geoengineering research should be transparent, with results
published and made available to the public.
- Independent researchers not involved in the geoengineering
projects should assess the potential impact of schemes.
- 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".
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?
paper released last year called for a
new international agency to be set up to regulate
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.
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
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