Why We’d be Mad to Rule Out Climate Engineering

Oct 9th, 2013 | By | Category: Advocacy, Carbon, Development and Climate Change, Health and Climate Change, Information and Communication, Resilience, Technologies, Vulnerability
Tests to see whether climate engineering work could see water droplets sprayed into the atmosphere.

Tests to see whether climate engineering work could see water droplets sprayed into the atmosphere.

The Guardian: If climate change continues then all options to lessen its impact, including geoengineering, must be considered as a last resort.

The release of the report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month threw into stark relief the clear message on anthropogenic global warming and sounded the direst of warnings against our continued inaction. For the first time, and to the alarm of some, discussion on geoengineering (or, more correctly, climate engineering) was included in the report.

A single paragraph couched climate engineering in cautious terms, in bland language, and stated that deliberate intervention at large scale would be an imperfect solution with potentially serious negative side-effects. Even that level of caveating prompted consternation from some quarters who said, with limited legitimacy, that inclusion of climate engineering in the report somehow normalises it.

There often appears to be no role for cautious moderates who see the value in careful, thoughtful and transparent research in this public debate.

You are either to be damned for even thinking about climate engineering, and assumed to be in it for money or glory, or you are pandering to the anti-science, anti-technology eco-fascists. Most serious thinkers, however, sit somewhere between the two, broadly positive about careful research without severe climatological or societal impact but instinctively against deployment. Although the point is laboured, a distinction between research and deployment must be part of one’s personal framing.

Mine is simple. We are better off knowing everything we can about all our options, however unpalatable, while being mindful of undermining efforts on greening our energy sector and, more than that, our own lives. Deployment of technologies at global-scale with trans-boundary effects must be a last resort.

Personally, I believe the IPCC should have gone further and stated that climate engineering deployment should only be considered under careful and robust global governance, only in time of great need, and only when it is clear that we are a long way down the path to decarbonisation.

This last point is a current focus of debate and here we might look to other disciplines where prerequisites are common. For example, quitting smoking is a necessary condition for a lung transplant. The critical point is that difficult decisions are made impossible without an evidence base. No one should be racing to deploy a particular technology now, but careful, transparent and objective research is needed, given the gravity of our situation.

However, there are some high-profile and vocal objectors to even thinking about deliberate intervention. Al Gore thinks those researching geoengineering” are “crazy”. Clive Hamilton, author of Requiem for a Species, is a vocal opponent, citing sinister vested interests and a lack of transparency in his latest book Earthmasters. It is not clear how Hamilton, after having written about climate change and the end of the world, could then write a book about those who would even consider solutions that don’t fit his worldview, and rationalise his position.

Lastly, cultural historian Philip Hoare squared up to astronomer royal, Martin Rees, in the Guardian for daring to suggest that we might have to think about climate engineering. Hoare strikes out to decide for himself how good or bad various options are for “plan B”. He even goes for a tabloid-esque “apocalypse rating”, failing to inject some ironic humour into a subject where it is clearly inappropriate. I have some questions and challenges for Hoare, and Gore and Hamilton:

  • Your current stance undermines your previous assertions on the severity of climate change. Can you imagine no future scenario where climate engineering might be justified?
  • Show me anywhere on the Keeling curve where the environmental movement (which I consider myself to be an ardent supporter of) has made the slightest bit of difference to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
  • Why do you insist on wilfully confusing people who research climate engineering with those who blindly advocate deployment?
  • Suggest an alternative given the probable failure of conventional mitigation and severe climate stress. If it involves “a new energy system” or “a wholesale change in personal-to-global attitudes and geopolitics” then please tell me when this is going to happen.

Here’s my take. We’re probably not going to sort ourselves out in time and it will take some pretty serious consequences for the necessary political will to be garnered.

We might get lucky and change our ways before some apocalypse but, even so, the most vulnerable will suffer greatly. We will have had many opportunities to avoid such hardship and not taken them: we can hardly claim that global warming is unintentional now, and someone, somewhere will try climate engineering at a global scale, whether it be for self-interest or out of genuine fear, or both. Or maybe not, and maybe we’ll sit on our hands and watch the drier parts of the planet burn in hell.

Either way, knowledge of, and evidence about, potential climate engineering solutions will be at a premium. How can we ever be better off not knowing?

To suggest otherwise smacks only of quasi-religious dogma. Yes, there are spineless politicians looking for an easy route (hint: this isn’t it, doesn’t even look or smell like it) and yes, there are lunatics who might try this unilaterally – strong governance is needed now, even on small-scale outdoor experiments.

Yes, by all means challenge the science, the ethics and the issues around ownership, intellectual property and governance. Challenge those who appear unreasonably enthusiastic or those with ambiguous motives. What is really needed is decent, fair-minded and robust commentary.

To start with, stop suggesting the Spice project was cancelled due to a public outcry. The truth is that the project team itself called off 10% of the project due to our own discomfort around ownership and governance of the technology, and to suggest otherwise belittles the agonising we went through.

Climate engineering research is vital to prevent misinformation and poor decision making. Humility and thoughtfulness among those researching climate engineering must be our leitmotif.

Very few serious researchers are strongly in favour of deployment. Most, like me, would see it as tragedy; nothing less than a total abdication of our responsibility of planetary stewardship, were we to actually get to the point where deployment of global climate-altering technology was deemed necessary. The IPCC’s latest report clearly indicates that with every decision we make to value the economy more highly than the environment we make climate engineering more likely.

Author: Dr Matthew Watson is a researcher at the University of Bristol’s school of Earth sciences and blogs at thereluctantgeoengineer.blogspot.com


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