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Bipartisan Group Wants U.S. to Get Serious About Geoengineering

• October 04, 2011 • 2:46 PM

Efforts at geoengineering to cool a warming planet are picking up steam.

Geoengineering is the somewhat Orwellian term for mankind intentionally changing the dynamics of the planet’s natural processes using technology. We stress “intentionally” because once man mastered the plow and fire, geoengineering on a slow scale commenced; spurred by climate change, geoengineering ideas these days are both intentional and, based on geological time frames, instantaneous.

On Oct. 4, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Bipartisan Policy Center issued a report that called for the United States to seriously examine geoengineering as a “climate remediation” strategy. The report makes a point of saying it won’t use the “controversial” term geoengineering because it is broad and imprecise.

The two technologies discussed are removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through sped up natural processes (say biochar) or a technological fix; and bouncing sunlight back into space through putting water or other particles in the sky, making clouds more reflective or even putting reflectors in orbit (or on roofs).

The center doesn’t call for actually implementing anything “because far more research is needed to understand the potential impacts, risks, and costs associated with specific technologies.” (For more on the center’s reception, check out Cory Dean’s nice write-up here.)

Such precautionary rhetoric comes as researchers experiment on a small scale with technologies they think might be writ large. It all recalls the words of Robert Browning, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Apparently, reflective particles.

In Britain last month, the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project started looking at recreating the cooling effects that the plume of an erupting volcano creates without all the mucking around with lava and destruction. Using a barrage balloon lofted a kilometer above the ground, the SPICE team will study the mechanics of releasing water into the atmosphere even as scientists on the ground research possible sunlight-reflecting particles.

Ultimately, the idea would be to release the winning particles into the stratosphere and knock down the Earth’s temperature a half degree or so relatively quickly. “We hope that by carrying out this research we will start to shed light on some of the uncertainties surrounding this controversial subject,” project leader Matt Watson of Bristol University was quoted, “and encourage mature and wide-ranging debate that will help inform any future research and decision-making.”

Both SPICE and Bipartisan Policy center’s proposals involve serious scientific firepower, something our Emily Badger wrote about two years ago in “Let’s Just Rejigger the Globe to Cool it Off.” In that article she examined the fears of going off half-cocked à la Tennessee Tuxedo, but she also wrote of the trepidation some have in even broaching the subject.

As Badger wrote then:

“The unintended consequences, though, are an argument against deployment, not research. Another argument opposes even that much: the idea that simply by putting geoengineering on the table, we may remove the sense of urgency for the world to mitigate.”

“If that’s the case, [geoengineering] is clearly a disaster in my opinion,” she quoted Paul Higgins, a policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society, which had just drafted its own cautious geoengineering statement. That statement “went to great pains to stress that geoengineering — if it is attempted — must be done in conjunction with aggressive mitigation, not as a substitute for it.”

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Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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