New Report Urges U.S. to Fund Research on Geoengineering

4 October 2011 5:26 pm

A group of scientists and policy specialists say it's time to bring geoengineering research into the limelight. A new report, published by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, argues that the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should begin to coordinate "climate remediation" studies across a range of agencies.

"The government should start doing research," Jane Long, co-chair of the center's 18-member Task Force on Climate Remediation Research, said in a press conference today. "It's very critical that we not proceed in ignorance." The problem is that, on the federal level, "there's no research program at all in a coordinated way," panelist Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, told ScienceInsider.

This report isn't the first to call for further investigation into the potential of geoengineering strategies, which encompass techniques to cool the Earth or absorb existing greenhouse gases using technology or ecosystem-based methods. A 2009 report published by the U.K.'s Royal Society argued that such drastic efforts could become important short-term tools for reversing dangerous changes to the climate. But the report also highlighted how little is known about the impact of many proposals to tweak global temperatures. A 2010 climate report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences came to similar conclusions.

Panelist David Keith, an energy and technology policy analyst at Harvard, says that cloud seeding or similar strategies are no substitute for cutting emissions but may prove to be the quickest way to deliver relief from climate change to the world's poorest people. Such extreme measures are also likely to be relatively inexpensive, making it easy for relatively small groups to toy with the world's climate. "If [the U.S.] does not create a real research program in the next couple of years, other things will fill that vacuum," says Keith.

Geoengineering techniques are also wildly diverse, notes panelist David Goldston, director of government affairs for the National Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., and a former chief of staff of the House of Representatives science committee. They include everything from planting new forests to painting houses white to using reflectors to bounce sunlight back into space. Although many government agencies should be involved, he says the White House is in the best position to coordinate the overall research agenda. "You need some kind of centripetal force," he says. The report also recommends that OSTP form a panel of outside experts to address ethical concerns surrounding geoengineering efforts.

Finding the money won't be easy, Goldston admits. But he notes that government scientists are already exploring many of the basic questions underlying effective climate manipulation, such as how more opaque clouds may tweak rainfall. Other initial geoengineering studies may also be relatively cheap, since they'd largely be relegated to the lab.

One controversy surrounding geoengineering, however, may revolve around the name itself. After some discussion, the panel opted for the term "climate remediation," to avoid the negative connotations surrounding "geoengineering," Caldeira says—the term may conjure up images of mad scientists. The report notes that some of the authors, however, preferred the old vocabulary.

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