by Peter Maniloff -- December 11th, 2009
I just got out of a session on geoengineering lead by John Shepherd (lead author of Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance, and uncertainty by The Royal Society) and Jason Blackstock of the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Geoengineering is the idea of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere or reflecting sunlight back into space as a method of mitigating climate change. Suggestions have included launching sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the suns rays and nourishing ocean phytoplankton with iron so that they will photosynthesize CO2 out of the atmosphere. Both ideas are extremely controversial because the physical and ecological impacts are largely unknown.
The headline message from each is that geoengineering represents a potential emergency response to an imminent catastrophe, but that it does not represent a substitution for lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Professor Shepherd focused on The Royal Society’s analysis of geoengineering technologies, finding that none would be simultaneously effective, affordable, timely, and safe. Their findings were summarized in the chart below. As he said, “we’d like to see something big and green on the top right, and there isn’t any”.
Dr Blackstock discussed policy and social aspects of geoengineering, spending more time raising interesting questions than answering them. (That’s fair, it’s what he promised to do.) Long term questions included
Who will get to decide on whether to geoengineer, and by how much?
Will adversely impacted peoples be compensated? How, and by whom?
What sorts of international bodies should govern this?
He also focused on more short-term questions, such as
Who will do R+D about geoengineering? Who will govern R+D?
How can researchers test geoengineering ideas? Lab experiments are fine, but field experiments will be needed before any potential deployment.
Will the intellectual property be patented or public?
Will different nations cooperate?
Blackstone suggested that the answers to these questions will strongly influence the future path of geoengineering – that decisions we make now will affect the long-term path of knowledge, research, and development.
Some advocates have suggested that geoengineering is so dangerous that we should prohibit studying it. These experts cautioned against such a ban, noting that more information is needed for good decision-making and that such a ban would likely be ineffective – the cat is out of the bag.