SAN DIEGO –The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) draws “thousands” of scientists in virtually every endeavor, from astrophysics to zoology. In climate science circles there was no lack of topics to choose from this year. Among them:
Several sessions were devoted to the notion of fending off climate change by tinkering with earth systems. In technical sessions and news briefings, there was a range of opinion on display, from “Let’s try it” to “Let’s look at it,” to “Don’t even think about it.” There seems to be general agreement that techniques like seeding the atmosphere with particulates could yield rapid results–but the idea is fraught with political controversy and legal pitfalls. Stanford’s Ken Caldeira likened the idea to a cancer patient who accepts the risks of chemotherapy, in order to avoid worse consequences. Philosophy professor (and Caldeira’s former teacher) Martin Bunzl, firmly rejected that analogy, saying that unlike cancer therapy, the risks are not well known and “You can’t just turn it off.” Bunzl directs the Climate and Social Policy Initiative at Rutgers University.
At Climate Watch, we’re preparing an explanatory radio feature on geo-engineering, for broadcast in the coming weeks.
The plight of the planet’s oceans was a focus of the conference, with numerous discussions of acidification, marine reserves and the newly implemented concept of “marine spatial planning,” an effort to map the oceans’ topography, biota and habitat, then translate that into a kind of zoning plan for human use (an approach specifically mandated by the Obama administration last year).
In October, researchers will formally conclude the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year collaboration among scientists in 80 countries, to “assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the ocean.” During a media briefing at AAAS, census Co-Chief Scientist Ron O’Dor estimated that the final tally would include 5,000 newly discovered species (“not counting the microbials”), from flying sea cucumbers to the “Rasta sponge,” which, according to O’Dor’s colleague, Shirley Pomponi, appears to sport dreadlocks and also “produces an anti-cancer compound.” O’Dor said one general conclusion from the census would be that while it is “large and resilient, we can’t keep insulting the ocean forever.”
Science & Policy
In keeping with the meeting’s theme of “Bridging Science and Society,” and reflecting the current angst over credibility in science, there were overflow sessions with titles such as “A Wobbly Three-Legged Stool: Science, Politics and the Public.” While people spilled out the door of that room, hard-science lectures in adjacent rooms drew just a smattering of people. In an interview with Climate Watch, Brad Allenby, a professor of engineering and ethics at Arizona State University, lamented that “the climate change discussion has become so polarized, even among scientists, that it’s difficult to present the public with factual information that is credible.”
National Climate Service
NOAA chief Jane Lubchenko used the occasion of the conference to talk up her agency’s new National Climate Service, funded by legislation last year. The new branch will provide one-stop shopping for climate research and tools for policymakers, including those at the state and local level. Lubchenko says she hopes to have the new unit operational by October, when the federal fiscal year turns over.