Think Tank Urges Government to Start Geoengineering Research Program

Image: Willow2012 via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons License

Scientists predict a daunting set of potential consequences of climate change. With the possibility of increased droughts, a higher frequency of wildfires, rising sea levels, the decimation of deep ocean sea creatures, and threats to global food security, the future of a warmer world appears bleak.

What if the unpredictable effects of climate change arrive quicker than expected? Advocates of geoengineering, which involves manipulating the Earth’s climate with technological mechanisms, some of which, like blasting large mirrors into space to reflect sunlight, come straight from the annals of science fiction, argue that geoengineering could offer a last resort fix to save the planet. It could be used as a form of “insurance,” as Graeme Pearman of Monash University has put it.  Critics, however, worry that if climate quick fixes are on hand there will be little reason for nations to cut their carbon emissions and reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Earlier this month, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington based think-tank, released a report that urges the U.S. government to implement an official geoengineering research program, overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, starting in fiscal year 2013.

So, what, exactly, is geoengineering? What does the report say? And what is the Bipartisan Policy Center?

What is Geoengineering?

Geoengineering involves manipulating the Earth’s climate to lessen the impacts of climate change. Ideas for how to do this fall into two camps.

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) options focus on taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, essentially cleaning up the mess made from burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. This could be done using machines that suck carbon dioxide out of the air. Another method, known as ocean fertilization, involves dropping loads of iron into the ocean to prompt the growth of carbon-eating plankton.

To cool the planet down, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) technologies could shield the Earth from incoming sunlight and bounce radiation back to space. Proposals include blasting tiny particles, or liquid droplets, into the stratosphere (the second major layer of the atmosphere) to deflect sunlight and making clouds more reflective by shooting seawater into the sky to “seed” them.

More audacious SRM strategies include putting space mirrors, or swarms of small refracting disks, into space. (This report from the Royal Society gives a good overview of such techniques).

What does the geoengineering debate look like?

Those advocating for research into the feasibility of geoengineering argue from a just in case perspective. Geoengineering might be an emergency measure if the “climate system reaches a ‘tipping point’ and swift remedial action is required,” according to the Bipartisan Policy Center report.

Since some countries, including the U.S., which has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, have shown little commitment to cutting carbon emissions, advocates argue that geoengineering might just be a necessary evil.

“People aren’t doing this because they think, ‘Oh whoopee! We can change the Earth!’ They’re doing it because they just don’t see any progress [on CO2 emissions] and it just seems to be getting worse and they want options on the table,” Jane Long, associate director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and co-chair of the 18-person task force that compiled the report, told Yale Environment 360.

Some of the report’s authors said they “hoped that the mere discussion of such drastic steps would jolt the public and policy makers into meaningful action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which they called the highest priority,” reports The New York Times.

Opponents argue that instead of gambling on geoengineering technology to save the planet, the global community should focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions instead.

“It’s as if the doctor says you have a disease that can definitely be cured by diet and exercise but you opt for expensive chemotherapy even though the doctor can’t guarantee the results but is pretty certain the side effects would be as bad as the disease,” writes Joe Romm, editor of Climate Progress and a fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Solar Radiation Management could have unintended consequences on rainfall patterns and droughts, and also raises serious questions regarding international law, policy and ethics. Tampering with the climate will result in changes that don’t respect international borders. Who has the right to start “the large-scale deployment of a climate intervention technology — and under what circumstances?” asks Mike Hulme, a renowned professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, England.

As the Bipartisan Policy Center report emphasizes, if the impacts of climate change get bad enough countries that have the capacity for launching Solar Radiation Management technologies might do so out of self-interest, without a global consensus.

What’s happening with geoengineering research today?

Geoengineering research is still in its infancy, with the exception of seeding clouds to induce rain- and snowfall, which has been happening since at least the 1950s. This type of cloud-seeding is a multimillion dollar industry in the Western U.S. and occurs in 10 U.S. states and Canada, but is quite different to seeding clouds to make them more reflective.

Kilimanjaro Energy, a company of which Columbia University’s Klaus Lackner, a pioneer in the development of synthetic trees, is a director, is in the process of developing systems to remove carbon dioxide from the air. So too is Carbon Engineering, of which David Keith, who formed part of the task force for the Bipartisan Policy Center report, is president (see last section of this post: What is the Bipartisan Policy Center?).

Solar Radiation Management concepts have mostly been tested with computer models so far, although Russian scientists have done small field experiments to gauge how aerosol particles deflect sunlight at heights of up to 656 feet above the ground. Indian and German scientists, meanwhile, are experimenting with ocean fertilization.

Last year, parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity asked for a cautionary approach to geoengineering. The parties recommended that with the exception of “small scale scientific research studies that would be conducted in a controlled setting” no large-scale geoengineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place without proper scientific justification and consideration of environmental, socioeconomic and cultural risks.

This month, Britain’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council put an experiment, which involved squirting water into the atmosphere via a 0.6 mile-long hose hung from a helium-balloon, on hold for six months. The delay would “allow time for more engagement with stakeholders,” according to the Council.

What does the Bipartisan Policy Center recommend the government do?

The report makes five recommendations to the federal government.

1) The government should start a coordinated research program on climate remediation (the report uses the softer term “climate remediation” as opposed to geoengineering).

2) The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should be responsible for coordinating this program.

3) The White House should create a new advisory commission to help guide research into climate remediation. This commission should include lawyers, social scientists, natural scientists and engineers, and it should report to the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

4) The government should integrate research across the natural and social sciences for research in particular climate remediation areas.

5)  The U.S. should start working with nations that have the scientific, technological and financial capacity to establish common norms and expectations for climate remediation research.

The report relays a sense of urgency and suggests that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget should propose the program for the president’s 2013 budget.

The authors of the report emphasize that geoengineering should come second to mitigation and adaptation strategies, and that researching geoengineering does not mean geoengineering will definitely be used in future. The “task force has not recommended deployment of climate remediation technologies, because far more research is needed to understand the potential impacts, risks, and costs associated with specific technologies,” according to the report.

What is the Bipartisan Policy Center?

Former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole (Kansas), Howard Baker (Tennessee), Tom Daschle (South Dakota) and George Mitchell (Maine) founded the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2007. The Center makes policy recommendations on issues including homeland and national security, healthcare and economic policy.

The Center’s funders include various foundations, such as the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York. It also gets money from corporations, including Dow Chemical, DuPont and The Clean Energy Group, as well as individual donors. Players in the fossil fuels industry, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, Chevron and Shell among them, form part of the Center’s leaders’ council.

[A full list of funders and leaders’ council members appears in the Bipartisan Policy Center’s 2010 annual report.]

The 18-member task force [see full list on page 2 of report] that compiled the geoengineering report includes leading geoengineering researchers Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution, and Harvard’s David Keith.

Caldeira and Keith administer the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy research, which provides grants, drawn from a pool of Bill Gates’ personal cash, to researchers involved in climate science, geoengineering and the development of clean fuels. Gates has put $4.6 million into the fund since 2007.

Keith is the president of Carbon Engineering, a company working to build the “world’s first air capture plant,” which will suck carbon dioxide out of the air. He envisions selling carbon dioxide to oil companies for use in enhanced oil recovery or combining the gas with hydrogen to create carbon-neutral fuels, reports CNN.

Ethicist Stephen Gardiner removed himself from the task force in March this year. “It became clear to me that there wasn’t going to be movement on some of the report’s recommendations, and I wouldn’t be able to endorse them,” he told Climate Progress.

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