Sunset through Earth's atmosphere, as seen from space.

NASA/Wikimedia

Sunset through Earth's atmosphere, as seen from space.

Scientists seek high bar for climate engineering experiments

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

The first ever international public conference on geoengineering, the deliberate tinkering with Earth's atmosphere, is under way in Berlin. Researchers there are considering a call for stringent controls on future field experiments aimed at finding ways to curb climate change. Geoengineering ideas have included pumping particulates into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight and installing mirrors in space.

A draft “Berlin Declaration” distributed this week at the meeting calls on:

“governments, research funding organizations and scientific and professional bodies to withhold approval or endorsement of any experimental work on such techniques without the establishment of an open and transparent review process.”

Meeting participants are now debating the statement, the full text of which is here. One scientist, geochemist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology in Palo Alto, California, told Motherboard's Brian Merchant that such language could stifle research. "How do you define 'experimental work on such techniques'?" Caldeira said. “I think it will end up doing more harm than good."

Meeting organizer Mark Lawrence clarified: "This is not a document that is intended to be an official conference output. We are providing a platform for intensified discussion around such developments in the community." 

In the past, Caldeira and other researchers have feared that such broad bans could drive research on geoengineering underground, poisoning early efforts to build trust between scientists and the public on the contentious idea.

Previous calls for limits on geoengineering research have been less forceful, including statements in 2009 by ethicists at Oxford and scientists at a closed meeting in Asilomar, California, in 2010.

*Correction, 20 August, 4:40 p.m.: The original version of the item stated that "a final draft of the statement is expected by Friday." This statement may gain supporters after this conference but there is no such schedule. Additionally, a clarification from meeting organizer Mark Lawrence has been added.

Posted in Climate, Earth