Geoengineering Report: Could Work, Go Slowly

Photo: Gretchen Weber

More research is essential to determine whether or not geoengineering is a viable approach for addressing climate change, according to the final report from a spring geoengineering conference at Asilomar.

Today’s report, stemming from a week-long conference of scientists in March, states that:

“Without an aggressive pursuit of a multi-faceted global response strategy to limit and and then reverse climate change, the environmental consequences will be severe, with concomitant social costs that are likely to lead to widespread suffering in the most affected regions.”

The types of technologies discussed at the conference included intervention strategies that attempt to remove carbon from the atmosphere such as ocean fertilization, as well as those that attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change by blocking sunlight to reduce warming, such as spraying sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere or increasing the reflectivity of clouds with sea water. The Asilomar report suggests that:

“If research demonstrates that such approaches could be effectively and responsibly deployed, they could contribute a bridging strategy that would have the potential to moderate climate change and at least some of its impacts until sharp cuts in emissions return atmospheric composition and climate change to much lower levels.”

Of course, that’s a big “if.” Much has been written about the potential risks of engineering the climate, ranging from the negative environmental side-effects of specific strategies, to the attractiveness of a “quick fix” option as compared to the hard work of reducing emissions, to the possibility that a lot of money could be spent deploying technologies that might not even work.  (For more on the potential risks of geoengineering, see Alan Robock‘s article “20 Reasons Why Geoengineering May Be a Bad Idea” from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.)

The 40-page Asilomar report, which can be downloaded at the Climate Institute website, acknowledges the potential risks of climate engineering and urges proceeding with caution, humility, and international cooperation.  It advocates five basic principles, most of which relate to the need for transparency, which was a major recurring theme at the conference in March:

(1) Climate engineering research should be aimed at promoting the collective benefit of humankind and the environment;

(2) Governments must clarify responsibilities for, and, when necessary, create new mechanisms for the governance and oversight of large-scale climate engineering research activities;

(3) Climate-engineering research should be conducted openly and cooperatively, preferably within a framework that has broad international support;

(4) Iterative, independent technical assessments of research progress will be required to inform the public and policymakers; and

(5) Public participation and consultation in research planning and oversight, assessments, and development of decision-making mechanisms and processes must be provided.

In his “Dot Earth” blog, former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin recommends two additional principles:

“I’d add that a forum should be established for working out a protocol by which the world’s variegated countries, each with a distinct sense of the “ideal climate,” might examine scenarios to plan a response if and when conditions point to the need for some kind of intervention.

I’d also add that a top research priority should be to build on studies showing that some options for limiting warming, like adding sulfur to the atmosphere, could have powerful and disruptive impacts on precipitation.”

There’s more coverage of geoengineering in previous posts on the Climate Watch blog.