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'Asilomar 2' Takes Small Steps Toward Rules for Geoengineering - Science - April 2, 2010

'Asilomar 2' Takes Small Steps Toward Rules for Geoengineering

Science , v. 328, p 22-23 April 2, 2010

by Eli Kintisch


PACIFIC GROVE, CALIFORNIA—Meeting in 1975 at a leafy retreat center here by the sea, molecular biologists grappled with how to unlock the secrets of recombinant DNA without creating infectious, runaway bio- agents. Their successful deliberations laid the groundwork for a regulatory framework that allowed research—and ultimately the biotech industry—to flourish.
Last week, nearly 200 experts in geosciences and other scientific and policy disciplines met here to confront a new kind of risky research:
large-scale geoengineering projects aimed at countering the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And although the climate scientists may have accomplished less in a week than did their biologist forebears, they did make progress. The conference organizers declared that geo- engineering research is “indispensable” but said that it should be done with “humility.” Governments and the public should work together to decide what schemes are “viable, appropriate, and ethical,” the statement added. Cuts in greenhouse emissions should be a priority, it said, mirroring statements by the American Geophysical Union and the U.K. Royal Society.

Most conferees believe the possibility of climate tipping points has placed geoengineering on the global agenda. And so last week’s meeting—The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, or Asilomar 2, as it was dubbed—was driven both by fears of climate catastrophes and the potentially dangerous steps that scientists or politicians might take to avert them. It was “a meeting … we all wished was not necessary,” conference organizer Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund in Alexandria, Virginia, told the participants.

Leinen’s organization was formed last year to fund geoengineering research projects, which fall into two broad categories. The first involves efforts to block the sun’s rays, using techniques such as spraying aerosols in the upper atmosphere or brightening clouds with sea salt. The second approach aims to remove carbon from the atmosphere by means of schemes such as growing algae blooms in the ocean. The conference even coined separate phrases for the two activities: “Climate intervention” describes the sun-blocking methods, and “carbon remediation” covers the CO 2-sucking methods.

As the fund began to hit up potential donors, however, several said that the nascent field needed a set of ethical ground rules before practitioners developed research plans. As a result, the goals of last week’s meeting were both specific and ambitious: Set up voluntary guidelines for a host of geo-engineering methods that had never been deployed on a large scale, or in some cases in any setting outside the lab.

Sobered by such broad societal responsi- bilities, participants spent a good deal of time discussing research ethics and the geopolitical implications of geoengineering. “I’d expected hubris but didn’t find it. No one seemed anxious to get on with geoengineering,” said
Paul Craig of the Sierra Club. Indeed, Princeton University energy expert Robert Socolow struck a cautionary note by presenting various “nightmares” for his audience to con- sider, from a rogue state using geoengineering before it was understood to having “all the [world’s] climate scientists working on geoengineering.”

Although the effects of geoengineering studies might be felt across broad swaths of the planet, they also necessarily affect individuals. Several
speakers cited approvingly the approach taken by bio- medical researchers: the need for informed consent, a balancing of the benefits and risks to humans, and the appropriate selection of research “subjects.”

But that model breaks down at some point because the risks involved in geoengineering are so different from those in medical research. Individual patients may die if a drug trial goes bad. Geoengineering experiments,
in contrast, could have wide-ranging and highly uncertain environmental effects, noted earth scientist Jane Long of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

That broader scope fed fears of restrictive regulations. And participants worried that those rules could be triggered even by very tiny interventions, such as a much-discussed project off the Scottish coast to spread small quantities of sea salt into the air and study their cloud-whitening effects.

The meeting also featured five breakout groups that focused on drafting research guidelines for the various kinds of approaches. What level of involvement by governments is appropriate? What role should the military or private companies play? A breakout group devoted to the idea of
blocking sunlight, for example, struggled over whether for-profit companies should be barred from the enterprise to ensure maximum “transparency.”

Given all the conferees were asked to take on, it’s not surprising that many loose ends remained as they headed home. (The 14-hour days drew few complaints—“I had no one ask that we meet less and go walk on the beach,” marveled scientific organizing committee chair Michael MacCracken of the Climate Institute, which co-sponsored the meeting.) The final statement was approved by the 13-member organizing committee, for example, although MacCracken hopes to gather signatures from all of the participants over the next few weeks. In addition, the
breakout groups are still massaging suggestions on voluntary guidelines for specific geoengineering approaches.

Reflecting the feeling that the meeting was only a start, some participants dubbed it “Asilomar 2.1” as a sign that more meetings would be needed. But everyone seemed optimistic that the answers would eventually provide a solid foundation for the fledgling—if frightening—field. “Asilomar 3 will be in another 30 years, for the next discipline,” predicted Socolow.