Geo-engineering is the weird uncle in the climate change policy family. Few in the environmental community are comfortable discussing the topic.
For good reason. It's easy to foresee wishy-washy politicians embracing technological hubris as an excuse for avoiding unpopular decisions to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Geo-engineering is not a panacea. We can't say at this point that geo-engineering projects would be practical or affordable.
We haven't begun to resolve ethical, legal, or institutional issues. Such as who gets to be in charge of tinkering with the atmosphere, who funds the work, and who pays for damages in case of screw-ups.
Most importantly, we're not close to knowing enough to be assured that geo-engineering wouldn't set off dreadful unintended consequences.
At the risk of enabling do-nothing congressmen, however, a carefully drawn geo-engineering research program should be carried out. We must try to answer those difficult questions because, as much as we would prefer not to, we might have to deploy geo-engineering as a last resort.
Fault lines already are developing on a wasp's nest of technical, economic, and political questions.
A climate engineering analysis published this month by a University of Texas engineering professor and an American Enterprise Institute researcher concludes that all of the 21st century's projected global warming ... that's right, all of it ... could be offset by spending a mere $9 billion on ships that spray seawater mist into the atmosphere in order to thicken clouds that would redirect sunlight back to space.
Bjorn Lomborg, the skeptical environmentalist, says the idea sounds like the cat's pajamas and never mind the worry warts who in his view have "overstated" the risks of climate engineering.
Not buying it is Roger Pielke, Jr., a University of Colorado environmental studies professor and a bit of an iconoclast who regularly annoys liberal greens and fellow climate researchers.
Pielke argues that the sea mist spraying proposal "is not well grounded in a realistic set of assumptions about how the global earth system actually works." Not enough is known about climate engineering to come up with cost-benefit analyses at this time that would be worth the paper they're printed on.
There is a thicket of vexing issues that cannot be waved away. "The consequences of reflecting sunlight would almost certainly not be the same for all nations and peoples, thus raising legal, ethical, diplomatic, and national security concerns," the American Meteorological Society said in a cautious geo-engineering policy statement published July 12.
Even if Bjorn Lomborg and a kitchen full of cloud chefs could whip up the right recipe for reflecting the right amount of sunlight back to space, that wouldn't sound the all clear for burning coal with abandon. CO2 emissions are acidifying the oceans, with grave consequences for marine life.
Reducing CO2 emissions is still a must. Given what's going in Washington, D.C., and in global climate treaty talks, however, it's not a given that the politicians will make responsible choices. There may come a time when geo-engineering must be tried.
The American Meteorological Society's policy statement is a prudent, conservative approach that both resistant greens and hubristic right-wingers ought to think about.
Do the research, be on the lookout for unintended consequences, examine ethical and legal angles, and do it all in the open.
Don't forget about reducing emissions or about adapting to climate change already in the pipeline.
Finally, make damned sure no one jumps the gun and starts shooting at the clouds before we really know what we're doing.
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