Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Geoengineering survey

The UK's major funding agency for environmental topics is slowly getting around to tackling geoengineering. Though they're not committing any funds to its study just yet (unlike their physical sciences counterpart), they are initiating a public consultation. How touchy-feely / useful this will be is up for grabs. Prior to running this, they've sent a note around academia to gather the community's opinion (and to spare themselves some work by fielding for questions to ask the public!). As I seem unable to resist putting my oar in, I've obviously replied ...

I am responding to the request for comments on NERC's public dialogue on geoengineering.

With respect to the particular questions raised in the request, I would respond as follows.

1. What are your hopes and concerns about the potential use of geoengineering technology?

In an ideal world, I would hope that it proves unnecessary to resort to geoengineering technologies in the future. All of the schemes proposed to date either have negative (or uncertain) secondary effects, are prohibitively expensive, or (further) disrupt natural ecosystems. As such, I would hope that their use is restricted unless serious climate change occurs unexpectedly rapidly.

Furthermore, I am concerned with our lack of understanding of the full effects of such purposeful climate modification. For instance, methods to reflect incident solar radiation may deleteriously alter cloud and rainfall patterns, or introduce acidic pollutants to the atmosphere. Similarly, methods that remove CO2 from the atmosphere through oceanic modification will (at least temporarily) accelerate ocean acidification and may expand ocean anoxia (with further consequences for the production of greenhouse gases). In the case of technologies that enhance natural biological sinks for CO2, changes in biodiversity are also liable to occur.

I am additionally somewhat concerned that the availability of geoengineering technology may serve to diminish efforts to decarbonise technological societies, the so-called "moral hazard". Since measures to address CO2 emissions are liable to lead to increased costs in the short- to medium-term (and the benefits are liable to be economically unquantifiable "externalities"), geoengineering schemes that promise to resolve climate change at a fraction of the cost will appear strongly attractive to governments.

All that said, I hope that government and other bodies are able to fund research into geoengineering so that, should disastrous climate change appear unavoidable, such technologies are available for use and considerably better understood. Given that some geoengineering research can run alongside existing research, it need not be especially expensive to investigate. But having a more complete understanding of possible climate interventions is crucial if they are to serve as a plausible "Plan B".

I would also hope that governments and other legislative bodies would assist to ensure that researchers are permitted to undertake small-scale trials of potential geoengineering technologies. In early 2009 an open ocean trial of iron fertilisation was heavily disrupted by legal activity, despite its activities being almost insignificant compared to the natural background of ocean processes. If geoengineering is to be evaluated properly (even for use as a "Plan B") it is important that efforts are not derailed by disproportionate or misguided appeals in the courts.

2. What questions should we ask people about the future of geoengineering research? What issues and options should be considered?

Both the question subjects and wording should be carefully considered (and/or studied in of themselves) to avoid polarising members of the public who are not familiar with climate issues in detail. For instance, the two following statements are liable to elicit different responses despite asking the same question.

  • Should geoengineering technologies (which purposefully alter the climate) be (a) investigated, and (b) potentially deployed?
  • Given that technological societies have already inadvertently altered climate, should geoengineering technologies (which purposefully alter the climate) be (a) investigated, and (b) potentially deployed?

That said, I would suggest the following as possible questions to ask people during public dialogue.

  • Given that technological societies have already inadvertently altered climate, should geoengineering technologies (which purposefully alter the climate) be (a) investigated, and (b) potentially deployed?
  • If geoengineering technologies are deployed, how should they be controlled? For instance, by companies or special interest organisations, by national governments, or by transnational organisations such as the United Nations.
  • Under what circumstances should geoengineering technologies be deployed? For instance, to return climate to its pre-industrial / modern state, or only when severe climate change is occurring.
  • When evaluating the safety of a geoengineering technology, how much weight should be given to negative impacts on natural ecosystems? For instance, consider a situation where a technology cools climate but significantly damages wildlife.
  • Should small-scale trials of geoengineering be permitted or banned?
  • Should geoengineering technologies complement or supplant efforts to decarbonise technological societies or the development of adaptations to climate change?
  • How should geoengineering research be funded? For instance, by normal government routes, or by private organisations that are either responsible for CO2 emissions or can profit from geoengineering.
  • Is any additional oversight, that is beyond government and regulatory authority, required for geoengineering? For instance, should lay individuals be formally involved.
  • Should the UK engage with geoengineering if the principle benefits of it are received elsewhere? For instance, some geoengineering schemes are liable to have the greatest benefit for high latitude (polar) areas.
  • Should the UK engage with geoengineering if negative consequences are caused elsewhere? For instance, some geoengineering schemes may cool the Earth, but impact negatively on weather patterns (e.g. the monsoon) in areas outside the UK.

Since geoengineering is tantamount to the alteration of the Earth at the largest scale to suit human needs and interests, I would additionally suggest that any questioning of public attitudes is accompanied by questions that aim to establish how people value and evaluate the worth of the Earth. For instance, whether participants consider that the Earth, its ecosystems or its charismatic megafauna have cultural (or other) worth. I certainly think it would be useful to know *why* people hold particular views (or which views overlap) alongside the views themselves.

Finally, given geoengineering's necessary connection to climate change, it seems crucial to me that some assessment is made of participants' views of climate change science as well. People whose views do not accord with the scientific consensus are liable to respond differently to those who accept current evidence and thinking. If one does not trust observational data or modelling simulations for climate change, it seems unlikely that these will be viewed positively for assessing geoengineering.

For reference, I am a coauthor of a review of ocean geoengineering (Lampitt et al., 2008; [1]), and was lead author on a study of the use of ocean pipes for geoengineering (Yool et al., 2009; [2]).

[1] Lampitt, R.S., (10 other authors) and Yool, A. (2008). Ocean fertilisation: a potential means of geo-engineering? Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. A 366, 3919-3945, doi: 10.1098/rsta.2008.0139
[2] Yool, A., Shepherd, J.G., Bryden, H.L. and Oschlies, A. (2009). Low efficiency of nutrient translocation for enhancing oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide. J. Geophys. Res. 114, doi: 10.1029/2008JC004792

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