Public Awareness of Geoengineering Science Increasing

23 October 2011 7:01 pm

Geoengineering may not be a household name just yet, but its celebrity status seems to be on the rise. A new survey finds that public awareness of strategies aimed at manipulating Earth's climate is higher than earlier surveys suggested.

In recent years, geoengineering, a blanket term for techniques to cool global temperatures by doing things like planting more trees or thickening clouds, has gone from lunchroom pariah to potential new cool kid. A report published earlier this month by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, for instance, called for greater federal leadership on climate-tweaking science. Despite this uptick in interest, few researchers have explored just how much the public knows (or doesn't) about the topic. A quick-and-dirty survey reported in 2010 hinted that only 3% of Americans could effectively communicate what geoengineering science means.

To get a better sense of public attitudes, a research group led by energy specialist David Keith of Harvard University queried about 3000 men and women in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom in late 2010. They found that about 8% of respondents could accurately describe geoengineering without prodding. When the group asked people to define the nearly-synonymous term "climate engineering," that number jumped to 45%, the researchers report today in Environmental Research Letters.

Why awareness seems to be climbing isn't clear, Keith says. But he notes that both scientific papers and media stories on issues related to geoengineering have soared in recent years.

Growth or no, this awareness is in its "early days," says Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The survey is also a clear example of the "nomenclature problem" facing climate scientists, he says. The term geoengineering simply seems to confuse people, so he doesn't use it, instead opting for more specific descriptions of strategies. Painting roofs white, he says, is a much different approach than spilling iron into the ocean to encourage plankton blooms (which soak up carbon dioxide). "Lumping those two together is a real problem," he says.

The new study found that further research into one specific set of strategies—for bouncing sunlight back into space—was backed by more than 70% of respondents. Such strategies include controversial proposals to seed clouds or even float giant mirrors in space.

Americans, however, appeared more wary of such strategies than Canadians or Brits: Forty-one percent of U.S. respondees opposed ever adopting geoengineering techniques, compared to just about 30% of Canadian and U.K. residents.

Such efforts to take the public's pulse on geoengineering may be crucial for understanding how to involve citizens in future policy making, says David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. "This is something that is going to require a lot of public engagement before decisions are made," he says. "Getting a baseline is very important."

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