by Judith Curry
The most fundamental argument for R&D on geoengineering is that those decision makers should not be put in a position of either letting dangerous climate change occur or deploying poorly evaluated, untested technologies at scale. At the very least, we need to learn what approaches to avoid even if desperate.
Robert Olson and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars have published a document entitled Geoengineering for Decision Makers. This is a comprehensive look at the issue from the perspective of policy makers, focused on the major concerns about geoengineering that policy makers need to be aware of and give due consideration. Excerpts from the Executive Summary:
Geoengineering involves intentional, large-scale interventions in the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, soils or living systems to influence the planet’s climate. Geoengineering is not a new idea. Until recently, proposals for using geoengineering to counteract global warming have been viewed with extreme skepticism, but as projections concerning the impact of climate change have become more dire, a growing number of scientists have begun to argue that geoengineering deserves a second look.
Below are 10 of the major concerns about geoengineering that policy makers need to be aware of and give due consideration.
■ Unintended Negative Consequences – We may know too little about the Earth’s geophysical and ecological systems to be confident we can engineer the climate on a planetary scale without making an already bad situation even worse;
■ Potential Ineffectiveness – Some proposed CDR methods are so weak that they would produce useful results only if sustained on a millennial timescale;
■ Risk of Undermining Emissions-Mitigation Efforts – If politicians come to believe that geoengineering can provide a low-cost “tech fix” for climate change, it could provide a perfect excuse for backing off from efforts to shift away from fossil fuels;
■ Risk of Sudden Catastrophic Warming – If geoengineering is used as a substitute for emissions reduction, allowing high concentrations of CO2 to build up in the atmosphere, it would create a situation where if the geoengineering ever faltered because of wars, economic depressions, terrorism or any other reasons during the millennium ahead, a catastrophic warming would occur too quickly for human society and vast numbers of plant and animal species to adapt;
■ Equity Issues – Geoengineering efforts might succeed in countering the warm- ing trend on a global scale, but at the same time cause droughts and famines in some regions;
■ Difficulty of Reaching Agreement – It could be harder to reach global agreements on doing geoengineering than it is to reach agreements on reducing carbon emissions;
■ Potential for Weaponization – Geoengineering research could lead to major advances in knowledge relevant for developing weather control as a military tool;
■ Reduced Efficiency of Solar Energy – For every 1 percent reduction in solar radiation caused by the use of SRM geoengineering, the average output of concentrator solar systems that rely on direct sunlight will drop by 4 to 5 %;
■ Danger of Corporate Interests Overriding the Public Interest – Dangers include a lack of transparency in SRM technology development and the possibility that the drive for corporate profits could lead to inappropriate geoengineering deployments;
■ Danger of Research Driving Inappropriate Deployment – Research programs have often created a community of researchers that functions as an interest group promoting the development of the technology that they are investigating.
Further, [the report] suggests a number of principles that decision makers can follow going forward. These principles are as follows:
■ Always consider geoengineering issues in a broader context of climate change management, which includes emissions reduction as the primary strategy and adaptation as the secondary strategy, with geoengineering as a third strategy to use only if clearly needed.
■ Address the climate problem and geoengineering in the context of related chal- lenges, such as energy security, vulnerability to terrorism, water scarcity and food security, ocean health, economic competitiveness and job creation.
■ Commit the U.S. fully to leadership in creating an advanced 21st-century energy infrastructure that incorporates major improvements in energy efficiency and dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.
■ Support significantly greater funding for energy research and development (R&D) on high-risk, high-reward energy supply options that could be game changers if they prove feasible.
■ Do not take geoengineering off the table as an option for helping to address the climate problem, but do not allow funding for geoengineering-related activities to reduce support for or divert funding from R&D on energy efficiency and carbon- free energy sources, climate science research or adaptation efforts.
■ Do not allow geoengineering to be used as a source of carbon offsets.
■ Distinguish between the two different approaches to geoengineering — carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM). In general, SRM poses greater risks and requires more evaluation and regulation.
■ Never treat SRM methods – especially the more powerful ones such as strato- spheric aerosols, cloud brightening and space-based approaches – as a substitute for emissions mitigation.
■ Do not consider deployment of stratospheric aerosols, cloud brightening or space- based methods in the near term.
■ In R&D on SRM methods, give more attention to the idea of regional geoengineering or “geoadaptation,” which could have more localized, “where needed” effects and be especially important for use in polar areas to limit permafrost thawing, ice sheet melting, and sea level rise.
■ Acknowledge that many geoengineering methods have significant uncertainties about their likely costs, effectiveness and risks, and support rigorous and fully transparent research efforts to reduce these uncertainties.
■ Learn as much as possible, as soon as possible, about geoengineering’s potential environmental impacts and its ethical, legal and social implications, using a portfolio of upstream governance approaches.
■ Insist that all SRM research be in the public domain, and stand firm in a commitment to openness, transparency and accessibility.
■ Recognize that developing needed agreements on large-scale testing will be easier to the extent that research is internationalized from an early stage. Support the development of a coordinated, fully transparent international effort in which the work of indi- vidual scientists and national programs is integrated into an international framework.
■ A moratorium on large-scale or “climate impact” testing should be put in place until a legitimate international process for approval and oversight has been agreed upon.
■ Begin working to develop the “downstream” governance arrangements that will be needed for authorizing both large-scale testing and actual deployment. As a first step, organize informal international dialogues where participants can think together and share concerns without having to take positions or votes.
Geoengineering and the Science Communication Environment
Dan Kahan has a new paper out [link]:
Geoengineering and the Science Communication Environment: A Cross-Cultural Experiment
Dan Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith, Tor Tarantola, Carol Silva, Donna Braman
Abstract: We conducted a two-nation study (United States, n = 1500; England, n = 1500) to test a novel theory of science communication. The cultural cognition thesis posits that individuals make extensive reliance on cultural meanings in forming perceptions of risk. The logic of the cultural cognition thesis suggests the potential value of a distinctive two-channel science communication strategy that combines information content (“Channel 1”) with cultural meanings (“Channel 2”) selected to promote open-minded assessment of information across diverse communities. In the study, scientific information content on climate change was held constant while the cultural meaning of that information was experimentally manipulated. Consistent with the study hypotheses, we found that making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions helps to offset cultural polarization over the validity of climate-change science. We also tested the hypothesis, derived from competing models of science communication, that exposure to information on geoengineering would provoke discounting of climate-change risks generally. Contrary to this hypothesis, we found that subjects exposed to information about geoengineering were slightly more concerned about climate change risks than those assigned to a control condition.
The basic idea behind the paper is described in the Introduction:
This paper addresses the contribution geoengineering might make to another environment: the deliberative one in which democratic societies like the United States and Great Britain make sense of scientific evidence relating to climate change. The scientific exploration of geoengineering as a policy re- sponse, we conclude, could have an important impact on public debate not just because of the factual in- formation it is likely to yield but also because of the cultural message it is likely to express about what it means to regard climate change as a serious problem.
Guided by a theory of how cultural meanings influence public perceptions of risk, we conducted a study to assess how being made aware of geoengineering might affect the receptivity of citizens to sound scientific information on climate change. The study subjects consisted of two large and diverse samples, one from the United States and the other from England. Consistent with the study hypotheses, we found that groups of citizens disposed by opposing cultural values to form conflicting assessments of the risks of climate change became less polarized over scientific evidence when they learned that geoengineering is under consideration as a potential solution.
I liked this statement from the section on Analysis and Interpretation:
As we understand it, the goal of democracy-promoting science communication is not to stifle citizens’ critical engagement with scientific information but rather to remove from their deliberative envi-ronment antagonistic cultural meanings and other influences that predictably distort the quality of such engagement. The proper measure of success for a two-channel strategy, then, is not its impact on making any group of citizens more or less disposed to credit a particular form of scientific evidence—much less to impel them into a state of agreement with any particular conclusion—but rather its success in abating antagonisms in meaning that drive citizens of diverse worldviews apart when they consider such evidence in common.
Re implications for communication:
Recognizing that there are two channels of science communication—a meaning channel as well as a content channel—is a one of the many insights associated with an emerging science of science communication. The perfection of that science is the key not just to diagnosing the pathologies that constrain science communication in democracy but to effectively treating them as well.
JC comments: It seems to me that a sensible application of the precautionary principle is to develop and evaluate technologies that might be needed or otherwise proposed. Robert Olson provides some sensible guidance re geoengineering. What struck me most was the idea of “geoadaptation,” which could have more localized, “where needed” effects and be especially important for use in polar areas to limit permafrost thawing, ice sheet melting, and sea level rise.
Dan Kahan’s paper raises the point that including discussion of geoengineering when discussing climate change can offset some of the cultural polarization. Presenting a possible technological solution makes the overall problem seem less threatening.
In the context provided by the combination of these two papers, geoengineering (and particularly geoadaptation) deserves wider discussion in the context of climate change.