‘Geoengineering’ could be needed to backstop carbon emissions regulations

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, March 19 – The climate debate rages on with Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) dismissing climate change warnings as a hoax. Meanwhile, House Science & Technology Committee Chair Bart Gordon (D-TN) is so concerned that he’s calling for research on “geoengineering” in case greenhouse gas regulatory controls aren’t enough on their own to fight climate change.

In a House hearing March 18, Gordon concluded that “the overwhelming preponderance of data indicates that the global climate is changing, that humans are at least partially responsible, and that we can best mitigate the damage by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.” Then he warned that “the impacts of climate change could outpace the world’s political, economic, and physical ability to avoid them through greenhouse gas reductions alone.” He said this possibility calls for research on geoengineering – global-scale deliberate modification of the climate through measures such as such as using stratospheric aerosols or space mirrors to reflect some sunlight back into space.

Gordon added that “I’d like to make it clear that we are not advocating for deployment of geoengineering technologies. I hope that we never get to that point.”

British Member of Parliament Phil Willis, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, testified about a joint U.S./British study on geo-engineering. He said one result has been a “Regulation of Geoengineering” report which “urged the UK Government to consider the full range of policy options for managing climate change, and that includes various geoengineering options as potential ‘plan B,’ in the event of ‘plan A’– mitigation and adaptation – not being sufficient.” He noted that any development or deployment of geoengineering must be done carefully since one country’s efforts to lower temperatures could spark conflicts with other countries which might benefit from global warming.

Willis said “deployment of geoengineering might occur only when temperatures go past a dangerous point of warming, say 3.5 degrees centigrade.” But he said that research needs to be done now because “If the climate warms dangerously, and we can’t fix the problem by reducing carbon emissions or adapting to the changing climate, geoengineering might be our only chance.”

Government Accountability Office (GAO) Natural Resources and Environment Director Frank Rusco delivered a GAO report which concludes that “Key scientific assessments have underscored the urgency of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide to help mitigate potentially negative effects of climate change; however, many countries with significant greenhouse gas emissions, including the United States, China, and India, have not committed to binding limits on emissions to date, and carbon dioxide levels continue to rise.” The GAO report states that research is needed both to determine whether geoengineering “would be effective at a scale necessary to reduce temperatures” and to prevent unintended consequences such as helping some countries while harming others.

Rusco characterized climate change as a potentially serious concern because “climate change could threaten coastal areas with rising sea levels, alter agricultural productivity, and increase the intensity and frequency of floods and tropical storms. . . human alterations of the climate system may increase the possibility of large and abrupt regional or global climatic events.” Pointing to the need for research, he said that “Due to the limited amount of geoengineering research conducted to date, the experts we interviewed stated that a sustained program of additional research would be needed to address the significant uncertainties regarding the effectiveness and potential impacts of geoengineering approaches.”

Carnegie Mellon University Engineering Professor M. Granger Morgan who began research on geoengineering in 1995 warned that “there is a growing risk that large effects from climate change might occur somewhere in the world that could induce a nation or group of nations to unilaterally modify the albedo of the planet [the fraction of sunlight reflected back into space] in order to offset rising temperature. If someone were to do that, it could impose large effects on the entire planet.” He noted that climate scientists have been reluctant to work on SRM [solar radiation management] geoengineering because “that might deflect attention away from reducing emissions, and might also increase the probability that someone would actually engage in SRM.”

Professor of Natural Resource Economics Scott Barrett of the Lenfest-Earth Institute at Columbia University pointed out that the geoengineering approach includes risks whereas “reducing emissions is a conservative policy. It means not putting something into the atmosphere that is not currently in the atmosphere. Energy conservation is an especially conservative policy for reducing climate change risks.”

Barrett concluded that “geoengineering is an imperfect substitute for reducing emissions. For example, geoengineering would not address the problem of ocean acidification. Also, we don’t know if geoengineering will work, or how effective it will be, or what its full side effects will be. We may contemplate using geoengineering to reduce climate change risks, but using geoengineering would introduce new risks. It would mean trying to reduce the risks of one planetary experiment (adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere) by carrying out another planetary experiment (reducing shortwave radiation). As compared with reducing emissions by promoting energy conservation, geoengineering is a radical approach to reducing climate change risks.”

Lawrence Livermore National Lab Principal Associate Director at Large Dr. Jane Long painted a dark picture: “Our climate is changing in response to massive emission of greenhouse gases. First, we have to stop causing this problem. We have to change our energy system, food system, transportation system, industries and land use patterns. Even with mandatory concerted effort, such massive change will take decades. During these same decades we will continue to burn fossil fuels and add to the greenhouse gases we have already emitted. This atmospheric perturbation will last for centuries and will continue to warm our planet. We have created, and will continue to create unavoidable risk of disruptions to our way of life which may force us to spend more on protection (resistance), change our way of life to accommodate the change (resilience), or perhaps even to abandon parts of the Earth that are no longer habitable by virtue of being under water or having too little fresh water (retreat).”

Long concluded that “As much as I think we should research geoengineering possibilities, I think we should remain deeply concerned by the prospect of geoengineering. We will not be able to perfectly predict the consequences of geoengineering. Some effects may be irreversible and unequally distributed with harm to some even if there is benefit to many. Geoengineering could be a cause for conflict and a challenge for representative government. Geoengineering might be necessary in the future, but as we proceed to investigate this topic, we will need extremely good judgment and a very large dose of hubris.”

To read testimony from the March 18 hearing on geoengineering, go to: http://science.house.gov/publications/hearings_markups_details.aspx?newsid=2764.

To return to the News Index page, click: www.agri-pulse.com