• Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Scientists Call for 'Climate Intervention' Research With 'Humility'

26 March 2010 4:18 pm

PACIFIC GROVE, CALIFORNIA—An international group of scientists, ethicists, and governance experts meeting here this week has agreed that research into large-scale modification of the planet is "indispensable" given the "threats" posed by climate change.

"It is thus important to initiate further research in the natural and social sciences to better understand and communicate whether alternative strategies to moderate future climate change are, or are not, viable, appropriate, and ethical," declares a statement by the organizing committee released today at the close of the conference. "Further discussions [on geoengineering] must involve government and civil society."

The statement capped a 5-day meeting on geoengineering, the idea of deliberate tinkering with the climate to reduce global warming. More than 175 scientists from 15 countries spanning the geosciences, ethics, business, and political science, convened on the leafy grounds of the Asilomar Conference Center along the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. Molecular biologist met here 35 years ago to hash out initial ethical and safety rules on recombinant DNA. So researchers dubbed this meeting "Asilomar 2."

Scientists emphasized that they are not saying whether large-scale geoengineering to combat climate change is needed—or if it is morally acceptable. Indeed, the statement urged that any discussion of the topic should be undertaken with "humility." But virtually all agreed that research into even the most radical methods should expand in case governments decide to act at some point. As Daniel Rosenfeld of Hebrew University in Jerusalem told ScienceInsider, "We are very late in the game. We have to do everything we can, and it still may not be enough."

But even just studying geoengineering on a small or medium scale presents a variety of risks. The 1975 confab grappled with the dual opportunities and dangers of recombinant DNA technology. By the same token, participants here struggled to balance the dangers with its potential for helping humanity stave off the worst effects of climate change. Reflecting a persistent tendency of participants to cite medical ethics, Princeton University energy expert Robert Socolow quoted from Hippocrates on "avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism."

The meeting began with 2 days of general sessions on scientific, ethical, and governance issues. Participants then split into groups representing the two broad kinds of geoengineering: methods which block solar radiation from the sun, like spreading aerosols in the stratosphere, and techniques to remove carbon from the atmosphere, like growing algae blooms at sea.

A major concern of participants was that talk about geoengineering could further slow flagging efforts to slow carbon emissions. "The risks posed by climate change require a strong commitment to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions," as well as adaptation and energy research, the statement said.

But concerns about how geoengineering might be applied should not forestall research or even field tests, most scientists felt. Since geoengineering experiments might have global impacts, participants emphasized the importance of setting up international ways to govern the experiments. Without such a body, irresponsible scientists might do "jurisdiction shopping," warned Edward Parson of the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.

Structuring such an entity was a contentious topic, however. Should every country have a seat at the table? On the second day of the conference, former ambassador Richard Benedick proposed a 15-member executive council of countries to oversee global geoengineering work, admitting that the "quixotic" idea would be controversial among any country not represented. Although a number of scientists scoffed at his suggestion, Benedick said he was worried that a governing structure that involved all countries would be "impossibly unwieldy" and block crucial scientific progress.

The scientists and other experts here hope their efforts will shape the way the public perceives the wild idea of geoengineering. But they agreed that theirs isn't the only voice that should be heard. "It simply is not up to us whether these field trials go forward," said David Morrow, an ethicist completing his graduate studies at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

Participants noted that the public's regard for climate scientists has dropped in recent months following a release of e-mails between prominent researchers and the discovery of a handful of errors in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "If they're not believing our ideas about climate, they're definitely not going to trust us when we are talking about managing the planet," said Ken Denman of the Canadian Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis.

A vexing question for participants was the role of commercial companies in this controversial field. A breakout group devoted to the idea of blocking sunlight—by whitening clouds or the ocean surface, for example—couldn't agree on whether it should propose barring for-profit companies from the enterprise.

Indeed, the organizer of the conference, the Climate Response Fund (CRF), itself faced questions about links between its officials and Climos, a commercial company that was founded in 2006 seeking to conduct iron fertilization experiments at sea and sell carbon credits to fund the work. CRF's head Margaret Leinen is the former top scientist with the firm, and her son is its CEO; she says she has severed "all financial ties" with the company.

Prominent geoengineering expert Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, said he was "concerned with possible conflicts of interest related to the profit motive," and chose not to attend after Leinen declined to say categorically that her organization would never support field research into geoengineering. But David Keith of the University of Calgary in Canada decided to attend after the Climate Response Fund issued a statement that declared that it would not do so.

More detailed materials from the conference are expected, including the possibility of voluntary guidelines for specific geoengineering approaches. Some felt the best name for this event was "Asilomar 2.1", suggesting that more meetings to hone geoengineering research guidelines will be necessary. "Asilomar 3 will be in another 30 years, for the next discipline," predicted Princeton's Socolow in a plenary talk on the final night.

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