Geoengineering Field Tests on the Horizon?

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Bill Gates may investing in geoengineering projects, but a widely-quoted news story reporting that he contributed $300,000 to a San Francisco company to launch climate-intervention field tests is full of inaccuracies, according to one scientist involved.  The article, which appeared Monday on the Times Online website, asserts that Gates gave the company, Silver Lining Project, the funds to develop machines to spray seawater up to 1,000 meters into the sky in efforts to whiten clouds and increase their reflectivity, thus blocking the sun and ultimately slowing the rate of atmospheric warming.  The article then describes a planned field trial, which would involve 10 ships and 10,000 square km of ocean, leading some readers to assume that Gates is funding the largest-scale geoengineering field test to date.

According to Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute of Global Ecology at Stanford, Silver Lining has received no funds from Gates personally.  Instead, he said, the $300,000 was allotted by Caldeira and David Keith, who have been directing geoengineering project funding for Gates.  Caldeira explained in an email that the scientists dispensed funds not to Silver Lining for field tests, but to engineer Armand Neukermans and his team, “to test the feasibility of fine seawater sprays in the laboratory.”

“There was no funding given for the planning, preparation, or execution of any field tests,” Caldeira wrote.   “I have expressly said that private efforts to conduct field tests should await the development of appropriate governance structures. I am opposed to private entities conducting field tests without appropriate governance and would oppose funding such activities.”

It’s possible, as critics assert, that the technology developed by Neukermans could eventually be used in Silver Lining Project field tests. However, the $300,000 from Caldeira and Keith would most likely be a drop in that bucket.  The Vancouver Sun reports that a scientist collaborating with Silver Lining, Robert Wood, said that it will likely take $25 to $30 million to fund the proposed field experiments.

The Times Online article touched on a particularly hot issue with the statement, “The British and American scientists involved do not intend to wait for international rules on technology that deliberately alters the climate.”

In March, scientists and policymakers gathered in Monterey for a week to discuss this very issue.  The general sentiment at the close of the talks was that more research is needed, as well as more input from governing bodies and the public, before potentially damaging field experiments are undertaken.

“This is a first step down a dangerous road,” said Rutgers scientist Alan Robock about the reported Silver Lining Project field test plans.  “Because, where do you stop?  There is no governance or agreed-upon restrictions determining what’s safe.”