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Geoegineering Ethics – Getting Serious & Humble About Climate Intervention [Video]

An oceanic phytoplankton bloom

Earlier this Spring, 200 climate science experts and policy makers gathered in Pacific Grove, California for ‘Asilomar 2’ (named after the first conference on bio-engineering held there in 1975), a pivotal conference for the emerging science of geoegineering. It was a meeting that many attendees regretted was even necessary.

[social_buttons] 2009 was a big year for news on geoengineering, where the word suddenly started appearing, or being heard,  everywhere it seemed. This publicity for a  new science that seeks to intervene on a globe-impacting scale to counteract human induced climate change has also been propelling a greater concern on the part of scientists and policy experts: that of public participation in the policy forming process, and the need for ethical guidelines for future geoengineering decisions, should they be necessary.

The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies was convened to establish future research goals as well as forge ethical guidelines for geoengineering applications.

In terms of research, the focus was on two main categories of geoengineering techniques — climate intervention and carbon remediation. Climate intervention involves techniques for blocking solar radiation, such things as spraying/dispersing aerosols in the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere) to reflect solar particles back into space. Carbon remediation involves schemes to remove massive quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, such as iron-seeding large scale algal blooms in the open ocean.

The experts were well aware of recent public protests (in Europe) of other meetings, as well as serious news reportage on the risks of geoengineering the climate (see my 2009 post Emergency Climate Control – Geoengineering Risks), even in a limited sense. Geoengineerg is unusual compared to most other sciences in that real world (accurate scale) experimentation is difficult, if not impossible. Any attempt at scaled-up experimentation could actually produce real-world impacts. Many techniques have never been validated outside the lab.

And so, participants spent much time discussing research ethics and the implications of geoengineering on a large scale, whether to counter a known positive forcing trend, or,  to stop a “run-away” climate catastrophe. Previous papers and reports have acknowledged the inevitable trade-offs, including possibly serious consequences for less-developed nations.

For example, blocking incoming, short-wave radiation through seeding the upper atmosphere with reflective aerosols will likely impact precipitation patterns (as solar radiation is the chief driver of precipitation). Such a change could seriously impact equatorial nations.

Watch this short animation depicting one proposed geoengineering technique (article continues below): Geoengineering – Stratospheric Hydrogen Sulfide Aerosols [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/lder1XlB5Lg&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

Or, consider that large-scale iron-seeding of the oceans (to absorb excess CO2) will certainly increase phytoplankton and other algae, which could disrupt pelagic (deep ocean) food webs by altering trophic (nutrient) conditions. And, should the blooms spread to shallower seas, these could cause a decrease in dissolved oxygen content due to aerobic, bacterial breakdown of massive amounts of dead algae. This will have unknown impact on fish stocks, possibly producing significant, negative economic impact on human, fishing-based economies.

Emergency measures such as these come with considerable dangers, primarily because their full ecological impact is unknown.

These concerns and others are what buttress public fear and criticism (and there is the emerging issue of Climate Fairness/Debt to compensate for the potential impact on poorer nations). Much of the focus was on research/experimentation guidelines, but also included discussion of the role of the government and the military, as well as the private sector (which might receive government contracts for work). The issue of transparency is of foremost concern these days, especially given recent media attention of modified data in one climate research group’s paper (which has subsequently been vindicated by two independent panels). This possibility would have even more serious consequences in the context of for-profit contracting of geoengineering support services.

The conference was co-organized by the Climate Response Fund and the Climate Institute, jointly declaring geoengineering research to be “indispensable”, but also, that it must be approached with great “humility”.

The Climate Response Fund was founded in 2009 to “to foster discussion of climate intervention research (sometimes called geoengineering or climate engineering) and to decrease the risk that these techniques might be called on or deployed before they are adequately understood and regulated.”

The Climate Institute is dedicated to “catalyzing innovative and practical policy solutions to protect the balance between climate and life on Earth” and offers many resources to the scientific and general population, including “climate games” and problem solving tools. One highly educational example is the “Climate Bathtub Simulation

Photo Credit: NASA – An oceanic phytoplankton bloom in the South Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Argentina. Encouraging such blooms with iron fertilization could lock up carbon on the seabed. Some reference material for this article came from a April 2, 2010 Science Magazine News report, ‘Asilomar 2′ Takes Small Steps Towards Rules of Geoengineering’ by Eli Kintisch.




One comment
  1. Brad Arnold

    "The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

    Here is what Climate Code Red says:

    –Human emissions have so far produced a global average temperature increase of 0.8 degree C.

    –There is another 0.6 degree C. to come due to "thermal inertia", or lags in the system, taking the total long-term global warming induced by human emissions so far to 1.4 degree C.

    –If human total emissions continue as they are to 2030 (and don't increase 60% as projected) this would likely add more than 0.4 degrees C. to the system in the next two decades, taking the long-term effect by 2030 to at least 1.7 degrees C. (A 0.3 degree C. increase is predicted for the period 2004-2014 alone by Smith, Cusack et al, 2007).

    –Then add the 0.3 degree C. albedo flip effect from the now imminent loss of the Arctic sea ice, and the rise in the system by 2030 is at least 2 degree. C, assuming very optimistically that emissions don't increase at all above their present annual rate! When we consider the potential permafrost releases and the effect of carbon sinks losing capacity, we are on the road to a hellish future, not for what we will do, but WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY DONE.

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