With Emissions Caps on Ice, Is Geoengineering Next Step in D.C. Climate Debate?

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

A 5-hour public conference today in Washington, D.C., on geoengineering research highlighted a growing focus in the nation's capital on the controversial idea of devising technical remedies for the effects of carbon pollution. Most discussions are for now behind closed doors, but some well-funded events like today's—dubbed "Geoengineering: The Horrifying Idea Whose Time has Come?"--are putting the topic on center stage. Equally relevant for policymakers, a number of reports are coming out in the next 3 months that could lay the groundwork for a possible government program on the technology.

Next month, the first of two reports by the Government Accountability Office is expected to be released laying out what research capabilities different U.S. agencies might bring to the problem and how an interagency program may be structured. Simultaneously, the House of Representatives science committee is releasing a report, prepared in conjunction with a U.K. House of Commons committee, on relevant policy issues. Additionally, in December or January, a committee of academics and government scientists, sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, will release a report that should offer scientists' take on the research policy and governance issues. Run by physicist Jane Long of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, it will cover scientific and geopolitical implications of a climate-modification research program. Guiding each of these efforts are a set of principles of safe and ethical field studies created by the Asilomar conference on geoengineering last spring, expected to be released soon.

Small national programs are just getting under way in the United Kingdom, which has spent ₤1.7 million on modeling and social science studies on sun-blocking technologies, and within the European Union, which has funded a group based in Heidelberg, Germany, to study the physics, ethics, and geopolitical aspects.

Will the U.S. government set up a devoted program to coordinate and fund geoengineering studies?

In a piece for Slate last week, I laid out two new obstacles to such an effort: Prominent Republicans are increasingly expressing skepticism over basic climate science, and Democrats remain focused on passing emissions cuts (for which geoengineering could be viewed as a distraction). In response to a question from the audience this morning, science committee chair Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) said that it may be difficult to create a dedicated federal program for geoengineering, given the sensitivities. (He said cutting emissions was the first priority.) But he said existing programs may be able to devote resources to the topic and said a "coordinating committee" along the lines of the National Nanotechnology Initiative could be useful. He then floated the possibility of an authorizing bill to create a geoengineering research program in late 2012. (Gordon has been the most outspoken supporter of geoengineering research in Congress, and it's unclear who will replace him after he retires this year.)

Thomas Schelling, a member of the Long committee, said in remarks today that simply funding some studies here or there in the government was insufficient. There must be a single "locus of authority" on the topic within the government, he said. The State Department, Department of Energy, and the White House science office could each serve that role, with input from agencies doing relevant work. So, too, could the National Academy or a new independent organization. "Then the question is, who do we consult with? Individual nations? The U.N.? ... Do we seek permission? Who's permission?"

"I think field experiments are very important to happen soon," said Schelling, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005. "If [sunblocking geoengineering] doesn't work, it's very important to know soon," he added. That's because policymakers must know if they could rely on emergency planet-cooling methods if they were to be needed. But what would the stated goal of such a program be, asked physicist David Keith of the University of Calgary in Canada. Setting up a research program needs goals, he said. "We can't go back to where we were [in terms of carbon levels] for hundreds of years. Since we can't go back, where do we want to go?"

Given the thorniness of such issues, and the potential of public backlash, many scientists are concerned about pushing too hard to set up needed research, said Long. "The tension between urgency and caution has played out in our committee at every turn," she added.

The Slate story linked to in this article was written by Eli Kintisch as part of a package of stories Slate published in conjunction with the public conference that this article covers. Slate was one of the sponsors of the event, hosted by New America Foundation.

Posted in Climate