The Great Tinkering
Last week more than 175 scientists met at a seaside resort center in Monterey, California to confront the controversialÂ issue of geoengineering the planet to stem global warming.
Participants at the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies — or Asilomar 2, following the first one in 1975 on bioengineering — declared that geoengineering research is “indispensable” but should be be done with “humility.” They outlined two main geoengineering approaches: “climate intervention” involving efforts to block the sun’s rays using aerosols in the upper atmosphere or increasing the reflectivity of clouds with sea salts, and “carbon remediation,” which involves ways to pull CO2 from the atmosphere.
By necessity, ethics were a major discussion point. Tinkering with the Earth’s systems can be risky and have repercussions that impact the entire globe. Since the bio-geo-chemical processes are so complex, how can scientists possible account for all outcomes when designing a climate geoengineering solution? Scientists certainly don’t understand the Earth’s systems 100 percent.
It appeared, even to the scientists, that the ethical questions involved could not be undertaken alone, and a statement produced called the work “a step in facilitating a process involving broader public participation.” But what does that mean? How can a decision on geoengineering be made that includes, as it should, the participation of the entire globe? If Copenhagen and Kyoto and Bali are any test of global political will on climate change, it appears that no unified decision can be reached, even when it comes to making basic commitments to lessening the production of greenhouse gases, a far less risky proposition, from a scientific standpoint, than using technology to hack into the Earth’s climate system.
Yet the arguments for geoengineering are gaining momentum precisely because of failed climate treaties. Climate change predictions keep getting worse, bringing us closer to tipping points that necessitate more and more drastic and risky interventions. By the time we get to those tipping points, we may have few other options than geoengineering. In which case survival, not public consensus, will be the order of the day by whichever world powers are able and willing to deploy the best magic we’ve got.
“Broader public participation” is ethically the right way to approach geoengineering, as the Asilomar 2 scientists proclaim. But even if it were truly possible, it’s not likely to happen in a crisis.
Geoengineering is disconcerting because so little has been doneÂ to prevent worsening climate change (mandatory conservation practices, caps on greenhouse gas emissions, a global cap and trade system, just to name a few). Geoengineering has always seemed to be a cheap way out of making hard choices, but it’s fast becoming our only way out. If it even works.
– Alison Hawkes