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The Public Isn’t Yet Ready for Sci-Fi Climate Engineering

• January 13, 2014 • 1:15 PM

(Photo: Public Domain)

A new survey reveals that people aren’t embracing space mirrors and stratospheric aerosols as solutions to climate change.

As global temperatures continue to rise and carbon dioxide emissions reach a record high, scientists are now more earnestly testing the possibilities of climate engineering, which, in doomsday lingo, is “deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.”

But as atmospheric physicists and weather engineers fine-tune their methodologies, another group of researchers has set out to determine if the implementation of the controversial techniques would really be palatable to the public. Surveys of more than 2,000 people in New Zealand and Australia revealed that they aren’t wild about the apocalypse-reversing technology. 

The study, which appears in the journal Nature Climate Change, used a marketing approach to evaluate the participant’s opinions about six different technologies:

Biochar (making charcoal from vegetation to lock in CO2); Enhanced Weathering (increasing the rate that carbon dioxide dissolves silicate minerals to form limestone); Air Capture (building structures that filter CO2 from the air); Stratospheric Aerosols (spreading very small particles in the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight); Cloud Brightening (automated ships spraying small seawater droplets over the ocean to reflect sunlight); and Mirrors in Space (placing large mirrors or sunshade structures in orbit to block or reflect sunlight). Participants viewed an on-screen visual of each climate engineering technique and read a brief definition of the concept inclusive of advantages and disadvantages.

The subjects were then asked to describe the technology using a list of attributes, five positive (understandable, controllable, environmentally friendly, long-term sustainability, cost-effective) and five negative (unknown effects, risky, artificial, quick-fix, eyesore). People overwhelming responded with the negative descriptors: more than 66 percent of the total associations were negative. “Unknown effects” and “risky” made up about 40 percent of all the attributes selected.

By far, people were less freaked out by the carbon dioxide removal technologies than solar radiation management. But even the highest positively rated carbon dioxide removal strategy, Biochar, still received a high degree of negative feedback (52 percent for Australians and 48 percent for New Zealanders). “Mirrors in Space” seemed to bother everyone: 80 percent of the attributes provided among Australians were negative, and 86 percent of the descriptors provided among the New Zealanders were. “Stratospheric Aerosols” didn’t trail too far behind.

Interestingly, recent computer modeling by climate researchers at the University of Reading shows that there might be good reason to doubt such technologies. The team discovered that “massive injections” of sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere could generate widespread drought in Africa, South America, and Asia.

The researchers behind this study, though, remain hopeful that perceptions of climate engineering will shift.

“The results will probably change as the public dialogue unfolds, as the public are exposed to other climate engineering concepts and provided with additional scientific information on the techniques presented here,” the authors write. “Re-applying the present methods provides a solution to the problem of assessing the exposure impact of scientific information in a real-world setting. That is, it provides a method of tracking changes in public perceptions if climate engineering moves from conceptual discussion to possible implementation.”

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

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