• Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

House Science Chair Enters Debate Over Biodiversity Pact's Bar on Climate Engineering

29 October 2010 5:45 pm

The House science committee has just released a report on climate engineering that lays out possible roles for federal agencies and international partners in the new, controversial field. By chance the report—expected a week ago—arrived just as an international body declared the first moratorium on field studies into the controversial field.

Today in Nagoya, Japan, delegates to the 193-nation Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) passed language, first reported by ScienceInsider on Tuesday, and called for "no climate-related geoengineering activities that may affect biodiversity ... until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities." ETC, the Canadian nonprofit group that pushed for the language behind the scenes, calls the language a "a de facto moratorium on geoengineering projects and experiments."

Some scientists have already attacked the language as too broad, fearing it could impede important studies, given the high environmental bar it poses for acceptable field tests of various techniques. The science committee would likely agree, with its report saying that "a research moratoria that stifles science [at this early stage] is a step in the wrong direction." A staffer for committee chair Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN) said: "The chairman isn't commenting on the CBD. He just wants to point out that moratoria on research, by definition, impede scientific freedom, and that, in turn, threatens transparency."

Gordon's comment addresses the fear that simply barring some types of research could drive science behind closed doors. Others worry that a taboo on geoengineering studies could dissuade talented researchers from entering a field the U.K. Royal Society and the U.S. National Research Council say needs more research immediately.

But there is some difference of opinion on the most immediate concern of scientists, namely, that this "moratorium" could halt studies that scientists hope will shed light on the risks and capabilities of atmospheric tinkering. In a note to ScienceInsider, energy expert M. Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said:

I do not think that this will have an adverse impact on the research that I and others have been arguing needs to be done over the next several years. Nobody is seriously proposing to actually implement [climate engineering experiments] at this stage, or to run any field experiments that are so large as to have significant ecological or other impacts.

Geochemist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science counters:

The main problem is that the adopted language is a bit sloppy. For example, there is the phrase 'may affect biodiversity', but of course everything affects everything. So one could say that anything and everything *may affect biodiversity* (even silly press releases from ETC).

So how this broad wording is interpreted could be the key issue. Also, ETC activists have opposed iron fertilization experiments in the open ocean featuring iron concentrations far below those found in nature, stressing that the intent of the intervention mattered as much as the actual effect on ecosystems. Hence, the word "justify" could provoke endless debates over what risk "justifies" what intervention, even on a small scale.

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