Geoengineering - viable Plan B or disaster in the making?

As hopes falter of any legal treaty on climate change being inked in Mexico, where the next UN climate change meeting convenes, there has been another debate brewing on the sidelines that I have been tracking with interest.

Geoengineering - a viable Plan B that we cannot rule out, or a disaster waiting to happen as climate scientists dabble with Mother Nature?

My interest in geoengineering was sparked by an interview I had with the skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg last year when he was in town for the Apec summit in Singapore.

Geoengineering, or climate engineering as some calls it, refers to actions that deliberately manipulate the Earth’s climate to counteract the effects of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of what Mr Lomborg said didn’t convince me (for reasons I shan’t go into in this post), but what I remembered of the interview was his vehement insistence that governments and companies should already be pumping money into geoengineering - a Plan B, he said, which would be more cost effective than cutting emissions. A path he said we should take because ‘we are too late anyway’.

This was a tune he sang again at the Copenhagen meetings - where we met again - and he sold passionately to any publication that was willing to interview him.

Since my last meeting with him, I’ve noticed a growing interest - and increased reporting - on the subject. There’s been lots of interesting things written, but I’ve realised the only thing certain about it is its uncertainty.

On one hand, while I can appreciate that it seems like a natural path to pursue given the near-impossible task of getting 192 parties of the UNFCCC to agree on climate change targets - it is also a route that if we supported blindly, may open the proverbial Pandora’s box.

This week The Ecologist launched a campaign to halt geoengineering.

“With little or no public awareness, geoengineering has become a multi-million dollar gambit and is now poised to gobble up the climate debate. Private companies and well-known individuals are now jockeying to test out their theories on an unsuspecting planet” it writes.

It doesn’t help that well-known public figures such as Virgin group chairman Sir Richard Branson was quoted to say: “If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn’t be neccesary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.”

That is plainly not the solution.

The Economist had a more objective piece in this week’s issue on the subject, arguing the merits of outlining a framework within which any research and proposals on geoengineering should follow.

Out of the Asilomar meeting, participants endorsed the “Oxford principles”, which “hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.”

The big question is: is this adequate? Will money pumped into the big unknown universe of geoengineering be better spent developing cleaner, renewable energy technologies?

This third piece I came across by Environmental Research Web quite aptly puts it, public perception will control the types of research we can do. Putting sulphate particles into the stratosphere won’t go down so well when the general public envisions the idea of boiling sulphuric acid in the sky above children’s schools.

Do you agree? has launched a new straw poll (scroll to the bottom right hand side of the mainpage) to help guage the public’s view on this new subject. We’re all very curious, so do vote if you have an opinion!

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