Last week we revisited the geoengineering debate in light of the recent Bipartisan Policy Center’s report recommending that the U.S. government be prepared to counter the effects of global climate change through climate remediation – that is, by engineering the climate. In particular, we emphasized the need to understand the foreign policy dilemmas that are likely to arise from engineering the global climate. This week we turn to the technical feasibility of actually doing it.
Later today Dr. Tim Persons, the Government Accountability Office’s Chief Scientist and author of the latest report, Climate Engineering: Technical Status, Future Directions, and Potential Responses, will discuss the future of climate engineering technologies at an event at the Wilson Center. Several of the GAO report’s findings are worth highlighting in advance of that discussion though. According to the report:
Climate engineering technologies are not now an option for addressing global climate change, given our assessment of their maturity, potential effectiveness, cost factors, and potential consequences. Experts told us that gaps in collecting and modeling climate data, identified in government and scientific reports, are likely to limit progress in future climate engineering research.
The report evaluated the most and least advanced options for engineering the climate. “To assess the current state of climate engineering technology, we rated each technology for its maturity on a scale of 1 to 9, using technology readiness levels (TRL)—a standard tool for assessing the readiness of emerging technologies before full-fledged production or incorporation into an existing technology or system,” the report stated. Any technology with a TRL score below 6 is considered immature by technical standards and “may face challenges with respect to potential effectiveness, cost factors, and potential consequences.”
The geoengineering debate is front and center in Washington again. Yesterday, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report recommending that the U.S. government be prepared to counter the effects of global climate change by researching and testing options for “climate remediation” – which is the report’s term of art in lieu of geoengineering; “to mean intentional actions taken to counter the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.” The report is based on the findings of an 18-member panel convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center in March 2010.
The debate comes as momentum for any political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through national legislation has stalled on Capitol Hill, and is likely to remain stalled through 2013 given the approaching presidential election season. According to The New York Times, several of the panel members that authored the report “hoped that the mere discussion of such drastic steps [that is, to engineer the climate] would jolt the public and policy makers into meaningful action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which they called the highest priority.”
“Managing risk is a central principle of effective climate policy,” the report states. “This task force strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e., enhancing the resilience of human-made and natural systems to climate changes). Most climate remediation concepts proposed to date involve some combination of risks, financial costs, physical limitations, or a combination of the three that make the concepts inappropriate to pursue except as complementary or emergency measures—for example, if the climate system reaches a ‘tipping point’ and swift remedial action is required. The United States needs to be able to judge whether particular climate remediation techniques could offer a meaningful response to the risks of climate change.”
Geoengineering – intentionally altering the climate, often discussed as a means of countering the already-in-process warming from greenhouse gases – has long been a favorite topic of mine. In the past few years I’ve been treated to new books out on the topic. One, Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe, made it onto my summer reading list this year, and I’m glad it did. Published last year by Eli Kintisch, now at MIT and an experienced reporter for Science and many other sources, I have a strong feeling that it will remain a must-read for years into the future as governments are forced to contend with their lack of action to date to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Hack the Planet provides the history behind modern thinking about climate change, including the involvement of world-renowned scientists, the U.S. nuclear labs, the Air Force, and others. It also provides several different angles for the reader to consider in observing where the debate stands today, including in-depth reporting on the status of several major geoengineering-related experiments, different schools of thought in the science and environmental communities, and the political tensions involved. Kintisch even presents the thoughts of a prominent ethicist on the moral considerations of intentional, global-scale climate manipulation.
With international climate negotiations underway in Cancun, I wanted to address an aspect of the climate debate that is not as likely to make headlines this week (except of course for this report in today's Washington Post): geoengineering.
Geoengineering, the intentional manipulation of the global climate in an effort to halt climate change, is gaining a lot of interest in the policy community. Yet to date, the implications of engineering the climate are shrouded in mystery because the science has not provided much fidelity as to exactly what side effects the global community could experience. “There might be geopolitical consequences as well,” warns Brian Palmer, writing in today’s Washington Post. “Some countries, such as Russia, stand to gain a relative advantage from a little global warming. They might not be happy if another country unilaterally dimmed the sun,” Palmer explains. The United Nations issued a moratorium on geoengineering in October at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity until the science is clear and international agreements on managing these activities are put in place. But how do we improve the science around geoengineering?
In October, the House Committee on Science and Technology released a report, Engineering the Climate: Research Needs and Strategies for International Coordination, that explores the research gap around geoengineering and the need to address this gap in order to get answers to many unanswered policy questions. "As this subject becomes the focus of more serious consideration and scrutiny within the scientific and policy communities," Chairman Bart Gordon wrote in the foreword, "it is important to acknowledge that climate engineering carries with it not only possible benefits, but also an enormous range of uncertainties, ethical and political concerns, and the potential for harmful environmental and economic side effects."
“Everything is unprecedented if you don’t read history,” said James Rodger Fleming, author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, at an event yesterday at the Wilson Center. With an increasing amount of attention given to geoengineering, Fleming has set out on a challenging but laudable task: bringing the history of geoengineering (yes, there’s a history there) to bear on public policy discussions. That’s no easy feat. But the time for mobilizing that perspective is now.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that the recent focus on geoengineering is in part a response to a growing consciousness in the policy community of the challenge of global climate change. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin summed it up rather nicely: “It's come to this: Climate-conscious policymakers are beginning to contemplate the possibility of playing God with the weather in the hope of slowing global warming.”
But what lessons can we learn from our having dabbled in geoengineering before? What is it we need to know before we start “playing God with the weather” in a serious effort to address climate change? These are important questions and were at the heart of Fleming’s discussion – and his book.