Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Geoengineering - an idea whose time has NOT come.

Over at ClimateWire yesterday (subscription required), there was a story about the “new” controversy that’s brewing in climate crisis response. It seems there’s now open debate in the climate science community about whether geoengineering – active manipulation by humans of the Earth’s many systems – should be on the table as part of our climate crisis toolkit.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Some geoengineering schemes to fight climate change would probably succeed in cooling the planet, scientists said here Friday -- but whether we should ever deploy them is still an open question.

Researchers who gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology outlined a stark list of potential side effects of different climate engineering approaches, including further depleting the ozone layer, inducing drought and turning the blue sky white.

At the same time, many experts said geoengineering could be a planetary "Plan B," an option to exercise if cutting greenhouse gas emissions can't stave off dangerous climate change. "Even if we cut emissions, we have a lot of carbon dioxide already in the air," said David Keith of the University of Calgary. "We don't know exactly how bad the climate response will be, and we have to think clearly about how we manage the risk posed by CO2 already in the air."

Here’s where the scientists begin to loose the framing battle. By explicitly acknowledging the uncertainty around whether emissions reductions alone will have an effect on the warming trend that is occurring, Dr. Keith (following good scientific practice though he is) has opened the door to denialists. “Wait,” they will now scream “if all this carbon is still going to be left in the air, and you’re right (snicker) about carbon causing global warming, won’t the remainder still do that? If it will, why cut emissions (i.e. change our lifestyle) – it won’t do any good.”

The following three paragraphs don’t make it any better in the framing war:

An ongoing MIT research project into the risks posed by different levels of greenhouse gas emissions suggests that even steep cuts won't guarantee the world will stay under the 2-degree-Celsius climate guardrail espoused by many political leaders.

Stabilizing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at the equivalent of 550 parts per million of CO2 -- a goal that's "not easy," according to MIT Energy Initiative director Ron Prinn -- would give the world just a 25 percent chance of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees between 1990 and 2090.

"Even with a very tough and expensive target, we are still at risk," Prinn said. "Hence, I think it's legitimate to begin thinking about geoengineering as something that should be on the table."

Much of the rest of the article from that point talks about the two main types of geoengineering being debated – those approaches that eat more carbon (like ocean fertilization), and those that reflect more sunlight back into space (like painting roofs white, or seeding the atmosphere with sulfates). Sure, it would be nice to have tools like this IF emissions reductions fail, but . .

'Precious little' science has been done

"The thing that's always frustrated me," said Philip Boyd, a professor of ocean biochemistry at the University of Otago in New Zealand, is that geoengineering "has great press coverage. It has that science fiction component that makes good copy. But there's been precious little or no science done."

David Keith, the University of Calgary scientist, agreed. "The actual number of real, serious science done on this topic is pitifully small," he said.

And that’s a huge part of the problem where both the efficacy of the techniques are concerned, and for how science frames this issue in talking to the general public. Because geoengineering as a word appeals to humans apparently innate desire to control nature, these approaches seem to get disproportionate media coverage. Far easier, so the story goes, to “geoengineer” our way out of the crisis, then to change our habits that lead to the crisis in the first place. That’s been the stuff of climate crisis denial for years now, and will continue to be so as long as scientists refuse to make “normative” statements about the impacts of all these decisions.

Yet, there is hope for my fellow science travelers :

Boyd said he's about to publish a study that predicts many geoengineering proposals would increase the potential for conflict, in part because documenting their effectiveness and assigning blame if things go wrong would be difficult tasks. He and others also noted that some climate engineering options, like delivering sulfate particles to the stratosphere, appear cheap enough that a large corporation or an individual country could deploy them without any international input. "The fact that it's cheap automatically means the policy challenge is control," said Keith, the University of Calgary professor. "The challenge is to control early actors."

But in the end, if more conventional efforts to blunt climate change don't succeed, whether to proceed with geoengineering may become an easier question to answer. "The most dangerous approach," said Keith, "is to assume geoengineering will work if we need it to -- without doing the research to prove it."

Dr. Keith is, of course, correct from a scientific standpoint. And, he and his colleagues do a better job then most of highlighting explicitly the threats from geoengineering as an approach to dealing with this self-inflicted wound. Yet they don’t go far enough, in my view. They avoid discussions of how, in essence, the climate crisis is the result of generations of unintentional, undirected geoengineering. They miss (perhaps because they are unaware) the fact that climate crisis induced ecological effects are already upon us. And they couch it all in the emotion-less, cautionary language of science. And by doing so, they give deniers one more chance to drive a wedge between the good that science can bring to this issue, and the reality that we’re all living today – namely that Americans want more then anything for this slow bleed out to be someone else’s’ fault.

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