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Geoengineers Get the Fear - Nature - April 1, 2010

Geoengineers Get the Fear

Nature, v. 464, April 1, 2010, p. 656

by Jeff Tollefson


“Be very careful.” The warning, from Robert
Socolow, a climate researcher at Princeton
University in New Jersey, came at the end
of a meeting last week that aimed to thrash
out guidelines for the nascent field of geo-
engineering. The discipline aims to use
global-scale efforts to control the climate
and mitigate the worst effects of anthropo-
genic warming — but the techniques used
could also have far-reaching, unintended
Socolow presented more than 175 experts
from a range of disciplines with a list of
their own nightmares, collected over meals
and cocktails during the course of an often
contentious week. As he rattled through the
scenarios, he highlighted the legal, moral
and ethical quandaries of geoengineering.
In one, a single country unilaterally
pumps aerosols into the stratosphere to
block the Sun’s rays and preserve — or per-
haps create — a climate of its own liking. In
another, climate policies result in a world full
of forest plantations that are created solely
to store the greatest possible amount of carbon,
with no regard for preserving biodiversity. Or
what if the very possibility of using geoengi-
neering to mitigate climate change gives politi-
cal leaders cover to say that greenhouse gases
aren’t a problem?
The morning after Socolow’s sobering talk,
the conference’s scientific organizing commit-
tee released a summary statement, based on
attendees’ comments, that endorsed geoengi-
neering research as a viable way of avoiding
possibly catastrophic global warming. But
participants came up short on their stated
goal of formulating a set of guidelines and
principles for scientists working in the field,
and conference organizers promised further
work on these in the coming weeks. Instead, it
was Socolow’s cautionary note that resonated
as participants departed the beachside Asilo-
mar Conference Center near
Monterey, California. “We’re
scared, and nothing brings
people together like fear,” says
Jane Long, associate director
for energy and environment at Lawrence Liver-
more National Laboratory in California.
Organizers modelled the conference on a
gathering at the same location 35 years ago,
when eminent biologists established influential
guidelines on experiments in the budding field
of genetic engineering. Despite disagreement on
when  — or indeed whether — the technologies
should be used, says Long, participants gener-
ally agreed on the need to identify a responsible
way forwards for geoengineering research. “It’s
a moral imperative to search for solutions,” she
adds. But it was evident from the beginning
that the much broader field of geoengineering
would not yield to simple principles as quickly
as had genetics.
Oranges, Porsches and whales
The term geoengineering covers everything
from mundane methods for increasing carbon
storage in plants, soils and oceans to futuristic
‘solar-radiation management’ techniques — for
example, creating haze in the stratosphere to act
as a cheap layer of sunscreen. And that diverse
definition is a problem, says David Keith, a
geoengineering researcher at the
University of Calgary, Alberta.
“People aren’t discussing apples
and oranges, they are talking
about apples and oranges and
Porsches and whales and moons,” he says.
Testing solar-radiation management
techniques on a global scale is particularly
daunting, given that detecting changes in
the climate system caused by geoengineer-
ing would be nearly as difficult as measuring
global warming itself. It could take years to
determine the main effects and decades to
sort out any number of smaller impacts (see
Nature 463, 426–427; 2010). Some fear that
stratospheric aerosols could thin the ozone
layer or shift global precipitation patterns.
Keith is developing a method to use air-
craft to release fine sulphur particles that
will stay aloft for years in the stratosphere.
He says that there should be a way to con-
duct small-scale experiments that test this
kind of technology without perturbing the
global climate. But any larger experiments,
in which the goal is to effect even small shifts
in incoming solar energy at the global scale,
should require authorization from a high-
level international body, he says.
Granger Morgan, an engineer at Carnegie
Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsyl-
vania, proposed creating an assessment for
field tests based on physical characteristics,
such as experiment duration and the pre-
dicted reduction in warming. If researchers
exceeded specified thresholds, interna-
tional governance would have to authorize 
further experiments.
Another cadre of researchers is pushing a
more benign technology that involves seeding
clouds with sea salt to increase their brightness.
This brightness could be turned on and off in a
matter of days, because the clouds would dis-
perse quickly once the seeding was stopped.
The technique could be focused on regional
problems such as disappearing Arctic sea ice,
say advocates, who suggest that a research

programme could be presented to the intergov-
ernmental Arctic Council for approval.
“You can’t build a wall around the Arctic

climate,” counters Alan Robock, a climatologist
at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New
Jersey. He fears that some of his colleagues are
pushing forwards too quickly in their hunt for
a climate fix, although he was pleased with the
conference’s final statement.
The participants agreed that what’s now
needed is a broader discussion of geoengineer-
ing issues within civil society and government.

In the meantime, other organizations, includ-
ing the UK Royal Society and TWAS, the
academy of sciences for the developing world,
based in Trieste, Italy, are planning their own
joint effort to face the fears about geoengineer-
ing — and find a way forwards.
Jeff Tollefson