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Geoengineering might work in a rational world … sadly we don’t live in one

If we’re going to mess with the weather, better know what we’re doing first. Bryce Bradford, CC BY-NC-SA

Geoengineering might work in a rational world … sadly we don’t live in one

The publication of a hefty two-volume report on geoengineering by the US National Research Council represents a marked shift in the global debate over how to respond to global warming.

To date, the debate has been about mitigation, with the need for some adaption because of the failure to reduce emissions adequately. The new report, backed by the prestige of the National Academy of Sciences of which the NRC is the working arm, now argues that we should develop a “portfolio of activities” including mitigation, adaptation and climate engineering.

In other words, rather than presenting climate engineering, and especially solar radiation management (rebranded “albedo modification”), as an extreme response to be avoided if at all possible, the report normalises climate engineering as one approach among others.

To be sure, the committee writing the report points to the serious risks likely in albedo modification, but it recommends the US set in train what would be a major research program into various forms of geoengineering, including field experiments in a technique to cool the planet by spraying sulphate aerosols into the upper atmosphere.

And it endorses the deployment of various carbon dioxide removal methods as relatively benign ways to counter human emissions, arguing that the decision on mitigation versus carbon dioxide removal is largely a question of cost. This approach is riddled with political dangers.

By mainstreaming geoengineering as a response to global warming the committee has left behind the argument put by Dutch Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, in his famous 2006 article that opened the floodgates for geoengineering research, that desperate times will require desperate measures.

With no talk of “climate emergencies” in the report, we look in vain for any clear rationale for the possible deployment of albedo modification. The “buying time” argument – according to which we can temporarily increase the Earth’s albedo (surface reflectivity) while the world decides to put CO2 controls in place – has fallen out of favour because any warming suppressed by a solar shield will just come back to bite us once the shield is removed.

Time for desperate measures? Oxfam, CC BY-NC-SA

So there is a contradiction buried in the report: it recommends the initiation of a federal research program into albedo modification but does not give a plausible analysis of the circumstances in which the solar shield might be deployed. The recommendation that “Albedo modification at scales sufficient to alter climate should not be deployed at this time” (my emphasis) is hardly reassuring.

Scientists call for more science

In the absence of a rationale, the report reverts to the standard scientists’ trope: we need more information. Deploying a fleet of planes to coat the Earth with a layer of sulfate particles “should only be contemplated” when we have enough data to know what effect it would have, and for this we need a lot of research.

But who should do it? Who should oversee it? Who should own the results? Who would deploy the technologies? How can we ensure research is not misused? These questions, which ought to come before a decision is made to proceed with research, are either not considered or are shunted off to some vague “governance” space.

Research does not take place in a social vacuum. When scientists propose to investigate technologies that would allow someone to take control of the Earth’s climate, and the research is proposed only because powerful interests have prevented a much better solution, then the research is intensely and inevitably political.

So we should not let the genie out of the bottle unless we are pretty sure we can put it back. And that means no research before governance. The committee stresses its desire for public engagement but then undoes it by seeming to endorse a proposal for an “allowed zone” in which scientists alone would decide which experiments could take place. In this zone, experiments “should not be subject to any formal … vetting and approval”, so the report’s fine words about civil society engagement begin to ring hollow.

Science meets the real world

An essential mistake of the report is the unwillingness to recognise (even though it has been pointed out repeatedly) that field experiments that do not change the physical environment can radically change the social and political environment.

To maintain the physical-social separation the report must play down or dismiss the problem of “moral hazard”, that is, the likelihood that a substantial research program, let alone any deployment, would almost certainly reduce the political incentives to rein in carbon emissions. The committee’s answer is, as always: we need more information to make good decisions. Of course, this does not answer the concern at all but merely asserts that more information will always trump the flaws of politicians – as if the information deficit model has proven itself so effective in the past.

The committee has a touching faith in the power of reason and holds it up as a kind of crucifix, declaring that “it considers it to be irrational and irresponsible to implement sustained albedo modification without also pursuing emissions mitigation, carbon removal, or both.”

And yet this report has been written precisely because we live in an irrational and irresponsible world. And one has to ask how rational and responsible it is to include solar radiation management in a “portfolio of responses” to global warming, as this report does. The mandatory declaration that albedo modification “does not constitute a licence for unbounded CO2 emissions” becomes a kind of incantation to ward off the irrationalities of the actual world.

One strategy for creating a rational world where climate engineering would never be misused is canvassed in the report. Social anxieties over deployment of climate engineering could be mitigated by “further research”. Negative perceptions of programs to modify the Earth’s albedo should be “extensively studied” so that they can be countered.

Sadly, the social world does not behave like the Earth system. It cannot be reduced to theorems and principles to be uncovered by further research. If we knew how to fix society through scientific study we would not be in such a mess that we are now considering an idea that Ray Pierrehumbert, climate science professor and a rogue member of the committee, describes as “wildly, utterly, howlingly barking mad”.