Climate: Why It’s a Mistake to Ban Research on Geoengineering

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Although most of the attention on the end of last week’s meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya focused on the modest agreement made to reduce biodiversity loss, that wasn’t the only outcome of the two week-long summit. Member nations at Nagoya also agreed on a possible moratorium on research into the practice of geoengineering—activities that would seek to directly reduce global warming by artificially cooling the Earth.


I say “possible moratorium” because the wording adopted by the CBD is—shockingly—less than clear. Here’s the relevant passage (see PDF):

No climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts, with the exception of small-scale scientific research studies [under controlled circumstances].

Nonprofits that have been pushing for a ban on geoengineering—on the grounds that the side effects of tweaking the planet’s climate could be devastating, and because allowing geoengineering could sap support for the tougher steps of reducing carbon emissions—cheered the Nagoya agreement. Pat Mooney, the director of the ETC Group—which has long opposed geoengineering—said the Nagoya decision should freeze virtually all research into geoengineering:

This decision is a victory for common sense, and for precaution.  It will not inhibit legitimate scientific research.  Decisions on geoengineering cannot be made by small groups of scientists from a small group of countries that establish self-serving ‘voluntary guidelines’ on climate hacking.  What little credibility such efforts may have had in some policy circles in the global North has been shattered by this decision.

But Fred Pearce notes in the New Scientist that the wording of the so-called moratorium only seems to apply to geoengineering that might impact biodiversity—and “small-scale” scientific projects were exempted, though it’s not clear what would qualify as “small-scale” when we’re talking about shifting the climate of the entire planet. (The fact that the U.S. is not a party to the CBD—having never ratified the original treaty—also makes this “ban” more a political exercise than a legal one):

Almost any activity may affect biodiversity: everything hangs on the degree, and the burden of proof. It might be also be argued that almost all geoengineering options – from putting parasols into space, to making clouds or seeding the air with sulphur to shade the Earth – would benefit biodiversity by stabilising the climate.

It’s true that geoengineering is incredibly complex, and if done wrong, could backfire tremendously. The biggest cheerleaders for geoengineering tend to be conservatives who are skeptical of climate change in the first place—even if it turns out to be bad, the argument goes, we’ll just pump some sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and cool the planet directly, no sweat. But it might not be so easy. The political scientist Roger Pielke Jr— someone who’s generally skeptical of our ability to rapidly reduce carbon emissions—believes that the implementation of most geoengineering schemes would be a mistake, on the logical grounds that since the climate system itself is so complex that we struggle to accurate predict how it will change in the coming decades, there’s no certainty that we would be able to accurately manipulate it. (Pielke is more favorable towards geoengineering schemes that involve the direct removal of carbon from the atmosphere—think super-trees—rather than trying to directly influence temperature.)

Geoengineering is potentially dangerous—but so is climate change. Banning research in the field could deprive humanity of a last-ditch weapon should global warming spin out of control. And we’ll never know how effective geoengineering could be—or how risky—unless scientists are allowed to do their work. That work will continue—the stakes are simply too high—and it’s better that the research is done above ground, socially-sanctioned, than driven into the black. More so, the argument that allowing research to go forward on geoengineering will somehow sap the public’s will to reduce carbon emissions—which is frankly questionable to begin with—is facile, as John Laumer has written in TreeHugger:

Imagine driving safety activists advocating closure of hospital emergency rooms, on the theory that if automobile drivers knew there were no means available, following an accident, for stabilization, diagnosis, and treatment, that they (drivers) would proceed with greater attention and caution. Knowledge that there was no backup would make driving behaviors “safer,” in other words. If you believe that I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to bid on.

What’s needed now is hard research into geoengineering techniques, so we can make judgements on the subject based on data, not prejudices. That’s what Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee is calling for in his just-released report on geoengineering research (download a PDF of the report here). Gordon, who chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology (well, at least for now), commissioned the first Congressional report on geoengineering not because he endorsed the idea, but because he wants the federal government to take the lead on the research, as he told Juliet Elperin of the Washington Post:

Climate engineering carries with it a tremendous range of uncertainties and possibilities, ethical and political concerns, and the potential for catastrophic side effects. If we find ourselves passing an environmental tipping point, we will need to have done research to understand our options.

Given the strength of U.S. science, it’s natural that bodies like the National Science Foundation would take the lead on geoengineering research, as Gordon’s report suggests, but there should be a role for the UN as well. As complicated as the science of geoengineering might be, trying to work out the geopolitics of artificially lowering the planet’s temperature will be that much tougher—like Copenhagen times 100. But shutting our eyes and pretending the problem will just go away isn’t a very effective solution either.

More from TIME on geoengineering:

Can Geoengineering Help Slow Global Warming?

Are the “SuperFreakonomics ” Folks Off Base on Global Warming?

Geoengineering—What’s Next 2008

And from Slate:

We Can’t “Fix” the Planet

And for deep readers, check out these two books on geoengineering:

Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch

How to Cool the Planet by Jeff Goodell