Hack the planet? Geoengineering research, ethics, governance explored

Dec 17, 2013
A conceptualized image of a wind-powered, remotely controlled ship that could seed clouds over the ocean to deflect sunlight. Credit: John MacNeill

Hacking the Earth's climate to counteract global warming – a subject that elicits strong reactions from both sides – is the topic of a December special issue of the journal Climatic Change. A dozen research papers include the most detailed description yet of the proposed Oxford Principles to govern geoengineering research, as well as surveys on the technical hurdles, ethics and regulatory issues related to deliberately manipulating the planet's climate.

University of Washington researchers led the three-year project to gather leading thinkers and publish a snapshot of a field that they say is rapidly gaining credibility in the scientific community.

"In the past five years or so, has moved from the realm of quackery to being the subject of scientific research," said co-editor Rob Wood, a UW associate professor of atmospheric sciences. "We wanted to contribute to a serious intellectual discourse."

Creating clouds over the ocean that would reflect back sunlight is the subject of a chapter by Wood, whose research is on the interaction among air pollution, clouds and climate. He and co-author Tom Ackerman, a UW atmospheric sciences professor, look at what it would take to test the idea with a field experiment.

"I don't want to prove it right, I just want to know if it's feasible," Wood said. "If you look at the projections for how much the Earth's air temperature is supposed to warm over the next century, it is frightening. We should at least know the options. Is geoengineering feasible if there were to be what people call a 'climate emergency'?"

Also explored in the journal issue is the idea of injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere, subject of a 2006 paper in Climatic Change by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and central to Seattle entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold's proposed StratoShield. Yet another idea is iron fertilization of ocean microbes, though Wood said preliminary tests suggest this is not as successful at drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as its proponents had originally thought.

How to govern geoengineering is a topic of hot debate. In one paper, U.K. authors flesh out the so-called Oxford Principles, which suggest how geoengineering could be regulated as a global public good. The five principles described in the paper concern the research, publication, assessment and deployment of geoengineering techniques.

Many of the authors spoke at the UW during a 2011 seminar series, and more attended a 2012 workshop where they developed their paper ideas.

While discussions were civil, Wood said, the contributors didn't all agree. A UW philosopher questions whether geoengineering can even be described in the Oxford Principles as a global public good.

"Just spraying sulfates into the stratosphere is not the kind of thing that necessarily benefits everyone, so in that sense it seems a mistake to call it a global public good," said co-editor Stephen Gardiner, a UW philosophy professor who has written a book on ethics and climate change. There are decisions about how to conduct sulfate spraying, he writes, and potential tradeoffs between short-term benefits and long-term risks.

Gardiner also questions whether something should be done in people's benefit but without their permission, and if accepting geoengineering as a necessary evil ignores other science or policy options.

He's not the only social scientist to be looking at climate issues.

"A lot of people, from across the academy, are getting interested in the Anthropocene – the idea that we may have entered a new geological era where human influence is a dominant feature, and what that means for various issues," Gardiner said.

The collection aims to prompt a serious academic discussion the editors say has so far been lacking.

"It's an interdisciplinary discussion with an emphasis on the research angle – whether and how we should be researching geoengineering," said co-editor Lauren Hartzell-Nichols, a UW lecturer in philosophy. "We hope it helps people think about this issue in a more interdisciplinary and integrated way."

Explore further: Geoengineering approaches to reduce climate change unlikely to succeed, study says

Related Stories

Survey finds public support for geoengineering research

Oct 24, 2011

Research on geoengineering appears to have broad public support, as a new, internationally-representative survey revealed that 72 per cent of respondents approved research into the climate-manipulating technique.

Effects of sea spray geoengineering on global climate

Feb 14, 2012

Anthropogenic climate warming is leading to consideration of options for geoengineering to offset rising carbon dioxide levels. One potential technique involves injecting artificial sea spray into the atmosphere. The sea ...

Climate change: Can geoengineering satisfy everyone?

Sep 15, 2010

Reflecting sunlight from the Earth by geoengineering would undoubtedly cool the climate, but would different countries agree on how much to reflect? Research by climate scientists at the University of Bristol ...

Recommended for you

New solutions needed to recycle fracking water

18 hours ago

Rice University scientists have produced a detailed analysis of water produced by hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) of three gas reservoirs and suggested environmentally friendly remedies are needed to ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sanescience
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2013
Ug. How hard has it been to take action to reduce man's impact on the Earth. Now were contemplating on agreeing on actions to take to dramatically (un?)impact the world?

Not a good sign.
Egleton
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2013
Not good indeed Sane. But have confidence that after the apoptosis event things will improve. Not on this rock though. The rock is doomed to sterilization.
freethinking
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 18, 2013
I've said it in the past..... If you want to destroy the earth, let the Progressive Environmentalist Activists have their way.

Progressives destroy the very thing they say they want to save. Didn't Obama say he wanted more people to have health care and drop the price of health care???? Now with Obamacare, just this year 5-15 million people just lost their health care insurance, by end of next year another 90+ million will lose their health care.
Modernmystic
2 / 5 (2) Dec 18, 2013
Ug. How hard has it been to take action to reduce man's impact on the Earth. Now were contemplating on agreeing on actions to take to dramatically (un?)impact the world?

Not a good sign.


Not good indeed Sane. But have confidence that after the apoptosis event things will improve. Not on this rock though. The rock is doomed to sterilization.


So the only thing we can consider is carbon taxes and solar panels? Do you want to talk seriously about saving the planet or do you just want an excuse to push pet political policies?

I think using mature nanotechnology to reduce CO2 levels to pre-industrial levels virtually overnight is a good thing. But you two seem to be saying it would be a bad thing...HOW exactly?