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Geoengineering: A congressman’s thumbs up

Marc Gunther's picture
FORTUNE magazine

Marc Gunther is a writer and speaker who focuses on business and the environment. He worked for 12 years as a senior writer at FORTUNE magazine, where he is now a contributing editor. His most...

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  • Nov 1, 2010

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Before we get to today’s topic–engineering the climate– let me call your attention to a couple of news items that got my attention last week.

First, a Chinese company called the Shanghai Electric Group signed a $10-billion deal to sell 42 coal-fired thermal-generation units to an Indian conglomerate called the Reliance ADA Group, the Wall Street Journal reported. Forty-two! I hate to say it, but all the efforts by enviromentalists to stop new coal plants in the U.S. won’t do much to curb global warming if India and China expand their coal-powered generation.

Second, The Nature Conservancy released a video and poster about the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Cancun saying “This is not a vacation!” and inviting people to submit videos calling for action on climate. Yes, it has come to this: So futile are the UN’s efforts to bring about a global climate treaty that environmentalists have to reassure people that there’s more to COP16  than sand and surf.

No wonder a thoughtful Tennessee congressman named Bart Gordon said this in a report published last week:

It is the opinion of the Chair that broad consideration of comprehensive and multi-disciplinary climate engineering research at the federal level begin as soon as possible in order to ensure scientific preparedness for future climate events.

Gordon, a Democrat, and his staff on the House Committee on Science and Technology, have been studying geoengineering. They held three public hearings, pored over research and worked with legislators in the UK to better understand climate engineering—which they define as

the deliberate large-scale modification of the earth’s climate systems for the purpose of counteracting and mitigating anthropogenic climate change.

Gordon’s 56-page report about climate engineering comes in the wake of a similar study from the General Accounting Office. Both favor a coordinated government research program, albeit with plenty of cautions.

In his report, Gordon notes that reducing greenhouse gas emissions must remain the top priority of dealing with global warming. This is smart because climate engineering won’t resolve the global warming threat; it will only buy more time to deal with it. Gordon goes on to say:

However, we are facing an unfortunate reality. The global climate is already changing and the onset of climate change impacts may outpace the world’s political, technical, and economic capacities to prevent and adapt to them. Therefore, policymakers should begin consideration of climate engineering research now to better understand which technologies or methods, if any, represent viable stopgap strategies for managing our changing climate and which pose unacceptable risks.

Translation: Environmentalists and forward-thinking politicians have been trying for years to come up with a way to curb GHG emissions. They have little to show for it. So it’s time to consider alternatives.

I’ve written about climate engineering more than most environment reporters  — see this, this and this – not only because it fascinates me, but also because I’m convinced we need to learn more about it. Plus, the debate is heating up. Last week, as the GAO and Congressman Gordon spoke out, ministers at a UN meeting on biological diversity in Japan called for a moratorium on geoengineering.

A global nonprofit called the ETC Group (it stands for erosion, technology and concentration) applauded the move.

“Any private or public experimentation or adventurism intended to manipulate the planetary thermostat will be in violation of this carefully crafted UN consensus,” stated Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American Director of ETC Group.

The ETC has published its own report, called Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering. It says research on geoengineering should be done by the UN.

Gordon’s report, meanwhile, recommends that scientific research begin into two categories of geoengineering technologies:

Solar Radiation Management (SRM) methods propose to reflect a fraction of the sun’s radiation back into space, thereby reducing the amount of solar radiation trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and stabilizing its energy balance. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) methods, also known as Air Capture (AC), propose to reduce excess CO2 concentrations by capturing CO2 directly from the air and storing the captured gases as a solid through mineralization, or consuming it via biological processes.

Governments, the report says, should also investigate the politics, economics and ethics of climate engineering, noting that there are “significant ethical considerations with the large-scale testing and deployment of climate engineering, since some strategies may benefit certain populations at the expense of others.”

Expertise that will be useful to study climate engineering resides within the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy and NASA, the report says. Interestingly, the report says that  while the Department of Defense has “significant expertise and experience in relevant areas such as large-scale engineering projects and airborne missions,” any research done by the Pentagon must be “committed solely to peaceful purposes.”

Gordon, by the way, is about to leave Congress so advocates of research into climate engineering will soon be looking for a new champion for their cause.

On the Post Carbon blog, The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports this reaction from climate scientist and geoengineering advocate Ken Caldeira:

“The federal government would be remiss if it did not undertake studies on what we might do if a climate crisis occurs,” Caldeira, who testified before Gordon’s panel, wrote in an e-mail. “If the unexpected happens; for example, if widespread famines were to occur in many parts of the world, we should be ready with contingency plans. And that contingency planning must consider the full range of options, including those that involve directly intervening in the climate system.”

“Nobody likes the idea of engineering Earth’s climate,” Caldeira added. “Unfortunately, at some point, our other options may be even more unpleasant.”

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Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Nov 2, 2010


Thanks for your persistent attention to this issue, which can’t be swept under the carpet, even if the UN biodiversity ministerial thinks it should be.  Instead of issuing a moratorium on research, they should have set up an inter-disciplinary team to determine a safe threshold for geoengineering experimentation–which is surely not zero, given the scale at which we’re already engineering the climate.  If our climate models are good enough to predict the consequences of emissions and land use change over a span of decades, they certainly ought to be up to the task of calibrating the scale of acceptable research into the options we might need in case mitigation and adaptation aren’t sufficient.  Doing less now seems as irresponsible as turning geoengineering researchers loose to fiddle with the climate on any scale they wish. It also reinforces the growing sense that the UN is not the right place to deal with climate issues.

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