"Hacking the only planet we've got rather than simply changing the way we live shows a lack of judgment, to put it mildly." - Alex Steffen of Worldchanging
When the Royal Society do a report on something, they do it
properly. Their latest, 'Geoengineering the climate: Science Governance and
Uncertainty' - is the product of a year's worth of work by some of the most prestigious scientists in the world.
And we should be grateful that they took the time, because based
on a cursory glance, it looks like they've produced a thoughtful and detailed
summary of proposals for so-called 'geoengineering' - or trying to deliberately
manipulate the planet's climate.
What do they say? Well you can read the summary for
yourself, but let's take a couple of quotes from the summary that give the
flavour of it:
The safest and most predictable
method of moderating climate change is to take early and effective action to reduce
emissions of greenhouse gases. No geoengineering method can provide an easy or
readily acceptable alternative solution to the problem of climate change... Nothing
now known about geoengineering options gives any reason to diminish these
And, commenting on proposals for 'Solar Radiation Management'
- trying to reduce the amount of the sun's energy that hits the Earth by pumping
reflective aerosols like Sulphur Dioxide into the atmosphere, or suspending
mirrors in space - they point out that as well as being technically dubious:
...the large-scale adoption of
Solar Radiation Management methods would create an artificial, approximate, and
potentially delicate balance between increased greenhouse gas concentrations and
reduced solar radiation, which would have to be maintained, potentially for
many centuries. It is doubtful that such a balance would really be sustainable
for such long periods of time, particularly if emissions of greenhouse gases
were allowed to continue or even increase.
So - they're being very, very cautious. The report is
couched in the language of risk - from the risk that geoengineering will become
technologically viable, to the risk that there will be unforeseeable and
serious side affects to these schemes, to the risk that there will be no robust
way to include planet-scale geoengineering within strong political frameworks.
Nevertheless, they conclude, further levels of research
would be a good idea - equivalent to keeping a 'watching brief' on the subject,
if you like.
Sir David King - it
should never take priority over reducing emissions
The government's ex-chief scientist shared his views on the
report on this morning's Today programme, picking up first on this need for further
... this is a very good report from
the Royal Society and the recommendation that we should spend ten million over
ten years on research and development in this area is a good one, let me
compare that however with the one billion pounds over ten years that I managed
to set up while I was in government for low carbon energy research through the Energy
Technologies institute. That's roughly the right proportion, because geo-engineering
is very unlikely to be an appropriate solution, and this is clearly stated in
the report, I'm just concerned that there will be a misunderstanding about this
and that geo-engineering could be used as an excuse for inaction, as a kind of fig
The last point he raises is the key one - and it's why, I
think, the Royal Society have been so careful to caveat their report and base
it all around their central conclusion: that geoengineering is in no way a 'Plan B' alternative to
reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Our chief scientist -
vested interests could use it to argue for avoiding action
Dr Doug Parr, our chief scientist, spoke at the launch of
the report. Doug and I had a chat about his views of the report and
geoengineering more generally, and he had this to say:
We have no concerns with The
Royal Society's presentation of this, because they led by saying that
geo-engineering is not a substitute for mitigation and nothing should stop the
urgency of the talks leading to Copenhagen and a 50% cut by 2050 in CO2
emission. But we worry how it might be received and understood by others.
Geoengineering is not a plan B
for the climate, it should be used only in desperation, can have their widespread
undesirable impacts, and raises major ethical and political issues of its own.
It may be very expensive, and it may well never work.
Many of these proposals still
have risks - there is no simple global thermostat that can be turned up and
down and proposals that reflect sunlight can still, as Susan Soloman
and others have pointed out, have impacts on weather and precipitation
leading to exactly the sorts of problems we are trying to avoid by averting
So geoengineering propositions
may well have a wealth of social, political, legal and economic issues of their
own. Even though the technical propositions are often poorly developed it still
seems that the technical propositions are running ahead of the regulation and governance.
Already there are people out to use geoengineering to undermine mitigation
efforts and this could be misused by them as a stamp of approval.
For an example of a group using geoengineering to argue
against mitigation, Doug pointed me to the American Enterprise Institute's webpage
Geoengineering,' which begins:
As Congress moves forward with
plans to cap greenhouse gas emissions, many experts are pressing for
consideration of other policy options. Geoengineering strategies represent one
such policy option. ..[which]...aim to alter temperature without changing the
levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by slightly reducing the amount of
sunlight reaching the Earth. Such approaches may be quite inexpensive relative
to other options.
Another particularly disingenuous example came from Bjorn
Lomborg recently who also suggested geo-engineering as an alternative to
cutting our emissions. So already we can see the potential for geoengineering
to be used as an argument for not reducing greenhouse gases. Doug continued:
This debate comes at a time when
the first serious federal climate legislation, the Waxman-Markey Bill, on which
a great deal rides in terms of success at Copenhagen,
is making its way through the US Congress. It is worth bearing in mind that the
American Enterprise Institute is known to be funded by companies like Exxon,
and that geo-engineering is now being investigated because we have
collectively, as a society, failed to take on the fossil fuel interests.
So, of concern here is not so much what the Royal Society
say in a cautious scientific exploration of the topic, but how their work gets presented.
Indeed, a quick look at the coverage of the report shows a spread of headlines:
From the cautious:
Hopes dashed for geo-engineering solutions (The Financial Times)
To the ambiguous:
Engineering a Climate Solution (The New York Times)
Investment in geo-engineering needed immediately, says Royal
Society (The Guardian)
To the positively enthusiastic:
ships and artificial trees could offer last hope to save climate, say British
experts (The Daily Mail)
should be developed as insurance against dangerous climate change (The
Could mechanical trees save the world? (BBC)
Clearly, however careful the Royal Society were, there's still
going to be a tussle over this. But the interesting bottom line for me is that
the Royal Society have emphatically put the nail in the coffin of the argument
that geoengineering could be an alternative to reducing carbon emissions.
Read the report: Geoengineering the climate: Science Governance and