Governing Geoengineering: Hot Topic for a Warming Planet - Miller-McCune
Before mankind can make big steps about widespread changes to natural process that affect climate change, it needs to take the baby steps of figuring out how to oversee the decisions.
As I walked out of a panel on geoengineering governance this morning at the Planet Under Pressure Conference taking place in London, I was handed a flyer calling on governments to “Act Immediately to COOL THE ARCTIC.” I do not take the dire warnings of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group lightly, but a call to use geoengineering among other means to cool the Arctic is both premature and scary.
As the panel’s experts explained, there are some types of geoengineering that may be cheap to deploy and likely to be effective at reducing global temperatures. The most promising methods of “solar radiation management” involve either brightening marine stratus clouds that reflect sunlight back into space and so cooling the Earth, or putting airborne particulates, like sulphate particles, into the upper atmosphere to temporarily block sunlight. This use of artificial aerosols could, in theory, produce a “Mount Pinatubo effect,” mimicking large volcanic eruptions that release millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere.
If that’s the good news, here’s the bad: we don’t really know what effects solar radiation management might have, particularly locally and regionally. Some areas, for example, might get torrents of rain and others draught. Resulting hazy skies could be troublesome for solar power, astronomy, and remote sensing.
But the focus of this panel of experts from the UK wasn’t to sell us on geoengineering or scare us. They work on the tough issues of how to manage or regulate the evolving science on solar radiation, ocean fertilization (adding iron or other nutrients to the ocean to increase marine food production and sequester carbon dioxide), and other ways of intervening with atmospheric or oceanic processes to reduce harm from changing climate.
Steve Rayner, director of Oxford University’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, reassured us that “we are still dealing with technological ‘imaginaries,’ not functioning technologies,” and further that “geoengineering is only likely to be implemented if it is generally viewed as safe, effective and affordable.”
A skeptic about the utility of international treaties in establishing effective environmental policy, Rayner emphasized that regulation could follow from principles determined by science panels of the political process in individual countries.
In the case of ocean fertilization, for example, powerful international agreements already cover what can and can’t be “placed” on the Earth’s seas, explained Chris Vivian of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Agricultural Science, a ministry of Britain’s government.