Should We Change the Climate If We Could?

Geoengineering is the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climatic system with the aim of reducing global warming. Who should do it and when? Anything done has the possibility of affecting everybody so who should be consulted? Who decides such world spanning concepts? A new study investigated these concerns. The findings are the result of the first UK public engagement study to explore the ethics and acceptability of so-called solar radiation management (SRM) technology, and a proposed field trial for a possible deployment mechanism.

The findings are the result of the first United Kingdom public engagement study to explore the ethics and acceptability of so-called solar radiation management (SRM) technology, and a proposed field trial for a possible deployment mechanism.

Solar radiation management projects seek to reduce sunlight absorbed (ultra-violet, near infra-red and visible). This would be achieved by deflecting sunlight away from the Earth, or by increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of the atmosphere or the Earth’s surface. These methods do not reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and thus do not seek to address problems such as the ocean acidification caused by CO2. One method is to inject aerosols into the upper atmosphere to redirect a small percentage of the Sun’s light and heat back into space to counteract climate change.

Solar radiation management projects are a largely theoretical type of geoengineering which seek to reflect sunlight and thus reduce global warming. Proposed examples include the creation of stratospheric sulfur aerosols. Their principal advantages as an approach to geoengineering is the speed with which they can be deployed and become fully active, as well as their low financial cost. By comparison, other geoengineering techniques based on greenhouse gas remediation, such as ocean iron fertilization, need to sequester the anthropogenic carbon excess before they can arrest global warming. Solar radiation management projects can therefore be used as a geoengineering quick fix while levels of greenhouse gases can be brought under control by greenhouse gas remediation techniques.

The aerosol injection technique is highly controversial, because of uncertainty about how interfering with the climate in this way might affect delicately-balanced ecosystems, or indeed, global weather patterns.

So much so, that the UK’s Royal Society and the US Government Accountability Office among others recommend seeking the public’s opinion on the acceptability of this type of research. The idea is to find out if there are aspects of this approach which scientists and other experts consider trivial, but which may prove unacceptable for non-experts.

In 2010, the Natural Environment Research Council ran workshops with around 30 people in three cities across the UK, called Experiment Earth, to discuss the moral, ethical and societal implications of SRM.

This latest study, published in Nature Climate Change built upon the findings of Experiment Earth, but focussed specifically on public reaction to a proposal for a small-scale test of a specific geoengineering technique to cool the Earth. The technique, called Stratospheric Particle injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE), was meant to explore the non-trivial challenge of how you might actually deliver aerosols 20 kilometres into the atmosphere.

Rather than shoot aerosols into the open sky, the scientists behind SPICE suggested running a field trial of a scaled-down one-kilometre pipe and balloon system to spray two bath-loads of fresh water into the atmosphere. This method involves attaching a pipe to a helium-filled balloon which carries it into the atmosphere to spray out a fine mist of particles. The Nature Climate Change study gathered public responses to this proposal.

Not many were happy with the idea of using aerosols to cool the planet. But everyone involved in the discussion groups was willing to entertain the idea that the small-scale test should be pursued. But only if certain conditions are met. These include making sure the technique is safe for anyone living nearby, and for the environment; and that those involved in SPICE were open and transparent about any experiments.

The SPICE team made sure that the tests would be safe for the local population and for the environment. The research councils supporting the project checked this at a so-called stagegate. The research councils and SPICE team also agreed that all results from SPICE would be published immediately according to normal academic practice.

“Generally, in terms of geoengineering and solar radiation management, our participants were not comfortable. But when it came to the test, people’s discourse changed. People are prepared to let scientists do some innovative things that might lead to knowledge which could help with climate change,” says Professor Nick Pidgeon, Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group, who led the research.

“One of the things I hope comes from doing this research is the idea of transparency in governance,” explains Parkhill. “At every stage there should be a mechanism for communicating not just to the public but to other scientists, research councils and governments.”

The SPICE project is still active, but the test has now been postponed. Despite this, both Pidgeon and Parkhill think the research councils involved should be encouraged by this latest study as a method for promoting responsible innovation in research. “Science is always part of society and this was a successful example of using public views in a way that wasn’t disruptive of the research,” concludes Pidgeon.

For further information see National Research Council or Geoengineering.

Article by Andy Soos, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.

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