November 30, 2010

On Geoengineering, More Research Needed to Answer Looming Policy Questions

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."

The report is the synthesis of a year-long effort by the committee, which held three public hearings to better understand research efforts around geoengineering – referenced in the report as climate engineering.  Chairman Bart Gordon argued in favor of using the term climate engineering because geoengineering “does not accurately or fully convey the scale and intent of the proposals, and it may simply be confusing to many stakeholders unfamiliar with the subject.”

The report, which is intended to provide contributions “to the evolving global conversation on climate engineering and help guide government and academic structures for research and development activities in this field,” according to Chairman Gordon, is the third in a series of reports commissioned by the committee to explore climate engineering. The two other reports were written by the Congressional Research Service (covered here on the blog) and the Government Accountability Office.

Indeed, in making its contribution to the conversation on climate engineering, the report identified key research needs and U.S. research capacities. On key research needs, the committee identified areas such as: greenhouse gas monitoring, accounting and verification; risk assessment and risk management; weather systems (including monsoon cycles); and terrestrial carbon sequestration. Yet despite these research needs, “there is virtually no federal funding explicitly dedicated to ‘climate engineering’ or ‘geoengineering’ research,” according to the committee.

To support climate engineering research, the committee emphasized the need to leverage existing tools and competencies within the federal government in order to meet these research needs. According to Chairman Gordon, “any federal climate engineering research program should leverage existing facilities, instruments, skills, and partnerships within the federal agencies,” including the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy, NASA, the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies. (The report described in detail how each of these federal agencies’ research capacities could be leveraged for domestic and international climate engineering research.)

Given that our blog focuses on national security and defense policy issues, the “other federal agencies” heading drew my attention and is instructive for how the committee views the role of the Departments of Defense and State. In a report we published in April, Broadening Horizons: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces, one of the recommendations we made to the Department of Defense in the report’s capstone chapter was to get involved in the geoengineering debate: “A lingering but critical policy question for DOD is what its role should be in discussions concerning geoengineering.” And while the Congressional report does not get at many of the policy questions we raised in our April report, it recognized that the Department of Defense has a role to play in bolstering the research capacity around climate engineering. According to the committee:

The Department of Defense (DoD) has significant expertise and experience in relevant areas such as large-scale engineering projects and airborne missions. Several experts recommend that this knowledge-base could complement climate engineering-specific programs. However, it should be noted that given the lack of transparency of defense research and programs, leveraging the capabilities of DoD could result in an adverse impact on the goal of public engagement and education on the issue of climate engineering. It is the opinion of the Chair that if the Department of Defense’s (DoD) expertise were to be engaged in a national climate engineering research strategy, special attention must be paid to public engagement and transparency, and all research efforts must be committed solely to peaceful purposes.

The committee also recognized the role that the State Department could play in guiding climate engineering research, especially in coordinating international research efforts. But more pointedly, the committee alluded to the potentially looming foreign policy challenges associated with climate engineering, challenges that will fall squarely on the shoulders of our diplomats and Foreign Service officers at the State Department and in our embassies and consulates around the world:  

While basic research activities within U.S. federal agencies may not require participation from the State Department, the potential impacts of climate engineering are necessarily international in scale. Those strategies that would result in trans-boundary impacts, such as changes in monsoon patterns and sunlight availability, would necessitate international coordination and governance at an early stage. If the United States were to formalize research activities on climate engineering, complementary international discussions on regulatory frameworks would be required.

While climate engineering (or geoengineering, depending on your preference and familiarity with the topic), is not likely to make headlines this week in Cancun, the issue is becoming more mainstream and policymakers are beginning to ask questions that they will need answers to. Scaling up the research efforts to better understand the technical and policy implications of engineering the climate is a step in the right direction to getting answers to those questions.

Photo: From left to right, Professor John Shepherd, FRS, Dr. Ken Caldeira, Mr. Lee Lane, Dr. Alan Robock, and Dr. James Fleming testify before the House Science and Technology Committee during a hearing on geoengineering on November 5, 2010. Courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.