Geoengineering techniques need more study, says science coalition

The Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative says geoengineering could be 'plan B' for climate change
Hanna Gersmann 1 Dec 11;

More research on the risks and governance of geoengineering the planet's climate by reflecting sunlight into space is needed, a grouping of science bodies and a green NGO have said, as the end of the first week of UN climate talks nears.

Concern about such techniques is significant and so more dialogue and research is needed on the risks and benefits, said the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, a coalition formed in March 2010 of the Royal Society, Italian-based academy of science for the developing world Twas, and US non-profit, the Environmental Defence Fund.

Various techniques for combating global warming by reducing the amount of the sun's energy reaching the earth have been proposed, from huge space reflectors in orbit to stratospheric aerosols released in the upper atmosphere. A UK-backed plan to test the mechanics of inserting such aerosols, using a hosepipe attached to a giant balloon, was postponed in September and the so-called Spice project was criticised by scientists writing in Nature earlier this month.

Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist for the Environmental Defence Fund and co-chair of the SRMGI, said: "Solar radiation management might sound, at first, like something from science fiction – but it's not. There are already serious discussions beginning about it, and that's why we felt it was urgent to create this governance initiative. Solar radiation management could be a Plan B to address climate change, but first we must figure out how to research it safely. Only then should we even consider any other steps."

The SRMGI's co-chair, John Shepherd, said: "Unless the apparent lack of political will to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions changes soon, geoengineering may be needed and SRM methods could be used in unregulated and possibly reckless ways by individuals, corporations or individual countries. "

He added: "We must also work outside our national borders, bringing together interested parties from around the globe to debate the issues of geo-engineering, agree appropriate governance structures and ensure that any research is undertaken in a safe, transparent and socially acceptable manner. The question of whether solar geo-engineering will prove to be helpful or harmful will largely depend on how humanity can govern the issue and its political implications, and avoid unilateral action."

But Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin American director of the ETC Group, which campaigns against geoengineering, said: "This report is dominated by scientists engaged in geoengineering research in the UK, US and Canada. They are advocates for more research, several of them have claimed patents and have significant financial, institutional and professional interests in the field of geoengineering research. There are the same familiar names that we have seen in a whole series of recent reports: John Shepherd or David Keith."

In September, Shepherd wrote in the Guardian that research would be "sadly necessary". In October, David Keith of Harvard University, a member of the SRMGI working group, and founder and president of Carbon Engineering, a geo-engineering company with 10 employees funded with around $6m (£3.8m) by Bill Gates, wrote a study that said the public strongly reported research into solar geoengineering. Some 72% of the 3,105 participants in the UK, US and Canada said they somewhat or strongly supported general research when asked: "Do you think scientists should study solar radiation management?"

Ribeiro went on: "Solar radiation management technologies are high-risk and extremely dangerous and they should be treated under international law like nuclear weapons – except, unlike nuclear weapons, we have an opportunity to ban their testing and their proliferation them before the technology is fully developed, rather than trying to prevent their proliferation after the fact. This is where we should be looking to for guidance on governance. We need to ban these technologies, not facilitate their development."

The SRMGI said a ban on geoengineering would not work: "A moratorium on all SRM-related research would be difficult if not impossible to enforce. The range of SRM research runs from computer simulations and laboratory studies right up to potentially risky, large-scale experiments in the real world. While most SRMGI participants were comfortable with low risk research, there was much debate over how to govern any research outside the lab," said the coalition's report, published on Thursday.

Geoengineering could save Earth -- or destroy it
Arthus Max Associated Press Yahoo News 2 Dec 11;

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) — Brighten clouds with sea water? Spray aerosols high in the stratosphere? Paint roofs white and plant light-colored crops? How about positioning "sun shades" over the Earth?

At a time of deep concern over global warming, a group of scientists, philosophers and legal scholars examined whether human intervention could artificially cool the Earth — and what would happen if it did.

A report released late Thursday in London and discussed Friday at the U.N. climate conference in South Africa said that — in theory — reflecting a small amount of sunlight back into space before it strike's the Earth's surface would have an immediate and dramatic effect.

Within a few years, global temperatures would return to levels of 250 years ago, before the industrial revolution began dumping carbon dioxide into the air, trapping heat and causing temperatures to rise.

But no one knows what the side effects would be.

They could be physical — unintentionally changing weather patterns and rainfall. Even more difficult, it could be political — spurring conflict among nations unable to agree on how such intervention, or geoengineering, will be controlled.

The idea of solar radiation management "has the potential to be either very useful or very harmful," said the study led by Britain's Royal Society, the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund and TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world based in Trieste, Italy.

Environmentalist Silvia Ribeiro, of the Canada-based ETC-Group, said geoengineering should be outlawed before it gets off the ground.

"Solar radiation management technologies are high-risk and extremely dangerous and they should be treated under international law like nuclear weapons — except, unlike nuclear weapons, we have an opportunity to ban their testing and their proliferation before the technology is fully developed, rather than trying to prevent their proliferation after the fact," she said.

The final report grew out of three days of talks in a quiet country retreat last March, the climax of a yearlong dialogue spanning experts in 22 countries.

It was prompted in part by the failure of a 20-year U.N. negotiating process to take decisive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, responsible for climate change.

"The slow progress of international climate negotiations has led to increased concerns that sufficient cuts in greenhouse gas emissions may not be achieved in time to avoid unacceptable levels of climate change," the report said.

But geoengineering is not an alternative to climate action, said John Shepherd, a British oceanographer from the University of Southampton who was a lead author of the report.

"Nobody thought this provides a justification for not reducing carbon emissions," Shepherd said in a telephone interview from London.

"We have to stick with Plan A for the time being, and that could be a very long time indeed," he said. "This would buy time for people to make the transition to a low-carbon economy."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change foresees temperatures rising as much as 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, swelling the seas with melted glacial water and disrupting climate conditions around the globe.

Releasing millions of tons of sulfur dioxide in the upper atmosphere would mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption, lowering global temperature about 0.5 Centigrade (0.9 Fahrenheit), which can last for a year or two when it occurs naturally.

But deliberately tinkering with nature to counter global warming can only be a stopgap measure, and is fraught with danger, the report said.

Action such as spraying sulfur into the air or brightening clouds with sea water to reflect more sunlight would have to be sustained indefinitely because "there would be a large and rapid climate change if it were terminated suddenly," the report said.

Hazy skies could alter weather patterns and agriculture, replacing one source of climate change with another.

Years of study are required to calculate the environmental impacts, but the bigger questions are political.

Who would decide where and when to conduct experiments, and where to set the global thermostat? What would happen if a country acted on its own without an international agreement? Would it discourage efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions?

Notions of manipulating the climate to impede global warming have been on the fringe of scientific discussion for some time, but is moving increasingly toward the mainstream.

In the United States, a group of 18 U.S. experts from the sciences, social sciences and national security unveiled a report in October urging the federal government to begin research on the feasibility and potential effectiveness of geoengineering.

"The United States needs to be able to judge whether particular climate remediation techniques could offer a meaningful response to the risks of climate change," said that report sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Shepherd said the 65-page Thursday's report was intended to start the conversation.

"No government asked us to do this. The U.N. didn't ask us," he said.

"I hope it can be continued in a more formal and mandated framework, because eventually somebody will have to take some decisions."