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Geoengineering: More Political and Moral Than Scientific?

June 18, 2009

The prospect of geoengineering continous to spark debate among scientists, environmentalists and politicians. Recently NPR carried an article on the topic:

Engineering our climate to stop global warming may seem like science fiction, but at a recent National Academy of Sciences meeting, scientists discussed some potential geoengineering experiments in earnest.

Climate researcher Ken Caldeira was skeptical when he first heard about the idea of shading the Earth a decade ago in a talk by nuclear weapons scientist Lowell Wood.

“He basically said, ‘We don’t have to bother with emissions reduction. We can just throw aerosols — little dust particles — into the stratosphere, and that’ll cool the earth.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’ll never work,’ ” Caldeira said.

But when Caldeira sat down to study this, he was surprised to discover that, yes, it would work, and for the very same reasons that big volcanoes cool the Earth when they erupt. Fine particles in the stratosphere reflect sunlight back into space. And doing it would be cheap, to boot.

Tim Harper (Cientifica), a long time commentator on ethics and nanotechnology recently blogged about geoengineering:

I recently suggested that we need a New Green Agenda, one based on solving problems not just mitigating them, and drawing on everything that science and technology can offer to create a more sustainable future. Greenpeace, rather surprisingly from a scientific viewpoint but obviously from a political one refused to countenance any funding for geoengineering or any trials, even small scale local ones and put up the rather weak argument that it would take funding away from other areas of environmental science.  One of the attractions of geoengineering is that it is cheap and uses mainly existing technologies, so a few tens of millions of dollars spent evaluating options is hardly going to handicap the the rest of the research community. I tend to agree with David Keith and growing number of others that if we are serious about climate change then we should be trying to do something about it rather than delaying research.

Probing further it seems that geoengineering horrifies Greenpeace and other NGOs precisely because it does offer a solution. The real reason Greenpeace dislikes ideas such as this is that it may offer politicians an excuse to stop buying into the sustainable/renewable argument which they have been promoting for thirty years, or to put it their terms “may reduce the political and social impetus to reduce carbon emissions.”

The many vested interests in climate politics may feel threatened by an actual solution to the problem of global warming. The conspiracy crowd feel threatened by the possible harmful effects on humans by experiments in tweaking the atmosphere.

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