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We all want to change the world - The Economist - March 31, 2010

We all want to change the world

The Economist. March 31, 2010

unattributed, but written by Oliver Morton


IN 1975 scientists expert in a new and potentially world-changing technology, genetic engineering, gathered at Asilomar, on the Monterey peninsula in California, to ponder the ethics and safety of the course they were embarking on. The year before, they had imposed onthemselves a voluntary moratorium on experiments which involved the transfer of genes from one species to another, amid concerns about the risk to human health and to the environment which such “transgenic” creations might pose. That decision gave the wider world confidence
that the emerging field of biotechnology was taking its responsibilities seriously, which meant that the Asilomar conference was able to help shape a safety regime that allowed the moratorium to be lifted. That, in turn, paved the way for the subsequent boom in molecular biology and biotechnology.
Another bunch of researchers, accompanied by policy experts, social scientists and journalists, gathered in Asilomar between March 22nd and 26th, hoped for a similar outcome to their deliberations. This time the topic under discussion was not genetic engineering but geoengineering—deliberately rather than accidentally changing the world’s environment.
Geoengineering is an umbrella term for large-scale actions intended to combat the climate-changing effects of greenhouse-gas emissions without actually curbing those emissions. Like genetic engineering was in the 1970s, the very idea of geoengineering is controversial. Most of those who fear climate change would prefer to stop it by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Geoengineers argue that this may prove insufficient and that ways of tinkering directly with the atmosphere and the oceans need to be studied. Some would like to carry out
preliminary experiments, and wish to do so in a clear regulatory framework so that they know what is allowed and what is not.

Ruled in or ruled out?

Like the biotechnology of the 1970s, geoengineering cannot be treated just as science-as-usual. There are, however, important differences between the subjects. One is that in the 1970s it was clear that the ability to move genes between creatures was going to bring about a huge change in the practice of science itself, and biologists were eager for that to happen. Modern climate scientists, by contrast, usually see geoengineering research as niche, if not fringe, stuff. Many wish it would go away completely. Another difference is that in the 1970s there was a worry that DNA experiments could in themselves present dangers. With geoengineering the dangers are more likely to be caused by large-scale deployment than by any individual scientific experiment.
There are two broad approaches to geoengineering. One is to reduce the amount of incoming sunlight that the planet absorbs. The other is to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it somewhere else. The second of these approaches is not particularly in need of new regulation. Whether the carbon dioxide is captured by real trees, as some would like, or by artificial devices, environmental problems caused by the process would be local ones at the site of the sucking. Underground storage of the captured carbon would be regulated in the same way that carbon dioxide sequestered from power stations might be—again, for the most part, a local matter. Even the most potentially disturbing suggestion, which involves fertilising the oceans with iron in order to promote the growth of planktonic algae (in the hope that they would sink to the seabed, taking their carbon with them), can be covered by the London Convention on marine pollution, which regulates dumping at sea, and has already addressed itself to research in the area.
Reducing incoming sunlight, by contrast, is fraught with danger. While it is possible to imagine doing so in a way that cancels out the change in average temperature caused by an increase in carbon dioxide, such a reduction would not simply restore the status quo. Local temperatures would still change in some places, as would ocean currents, rainfall patterns, soil moisture and photosynthesis. Sunshine reduction, then, clearly needs to be regulated. (It also needs to be renamed: these techniques are currently referred to as “Solar Radiation Management”, a term invented half in jest that has somehow stuck.)
One set of small-scale sunshine-reduction experiments discussed in Asilomar would send plumes of various sulphurous fluids in the stratosphere to find out which would best produce a haze of small particles similar to those that cool the planet after a large volcanic eruption. Another would attempt to whiten clouds over the oceans by wafting tiny salt particles up into them. Thus enriched, the clouds would, in theory, tend to have more, smaller droplets in them. More droplets mean more reflection and less sunshine down below. A team of scientists and engineers that calls itself Silver Lining is working on this idea, with some of its research paid for with money from Bill Gates.
In both cases, the experiments would be tiny compared with what people are already doing. In the week of the Asilomar meeting Science published evidence that more pollutants than previously appreciated, including oxides of sulphur, are getting into the lower stratosphere. Exhaust gases from shipping already brighten clouds over various bits of the ocean, and in so doing are thought to cool the Earth appreciably. As new regulations clean up shipping fuels in order to improve air quality in coastal regions, that brightening effect will be reduced, adding to the world’s warming in a sort of inadvertent reverse geoengineering.
Researchers in the field fear, though, that despite being much smaller than existing, inadvertent changes, their experiments will nevertheless become a focus for strident opposition unless there is a clear and respectable system of regulation. Without that, each experiment, however harmless, would be forced to serve as a proxy for the whole approach—a recipe for strangulation by protest and bureaucracy.
In retrospect, the Asilomar meeting may come to be seen as a step towards that respectable system, but probably only a small one. The participants did not produce clear recommendations, but they generally endorsed a set of five overarching principles for the regulation of the field that were presented recently to the British Parliament by Steve Rayner, a professor at the Saïd Business School, in Oxford. The “Oxford principles”, as they are known, hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.
The conference’s organising committee is now working on a further statement of principles, to be released later. Meanwhile Britain’s main scientific academy, the Royal Society, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, which has members from around 90 countries, are planning further discussions that will culminate at a meeting to be held this November.
Producing plausible policies and ways for the public to have a say on them will be hard—harder, perhaps, than the practical problem of coming up with ways to suck up a bit of carbon or reduce incoming sunshine. As Andrew Mathews, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts it, it is not just a matter of constructing a switch, it is a matter of constructing a hand you trust to flip it.