Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. When it comes to global warming, some scientists are taking those words to heart.
The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies held last week brought together some 175 scientists from around the world to discuss research into geoengineering, the deliberate manipulation of the environment to slow or stop global warming.
The conference, held in Monterey, Calif., was convened not to discuss specific methods of geoengineering but rather how scientists and governments should proceed with research and experiments.
The stakes are high, because any experiment that alters the climate could have unintended consequences. As Dr. Michael MacCracken, chair of the Scientific Organizing Committee pointed out, global warming itself is a form of (unintentional) geoengineering.
MacCracken and conference organizer Dr. Margaret Leinen stressed that no one is planning on large-scale climate modification anytime soon. “What is very far off is anything but very small experiments,” MacCracken said.
Bowing to the inevitable?
Geoengineering has moved into the mainstream of climate discussions in the last several years as an increasing number of scientists and others question whether humanity will be able to take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before global warming reaches a “tipping point” beyond which further reductions are futile.
Some proposed methods of geoengineering include increasing the brightness of clouds to reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the ground, cultivating algae blooms to suck up CO2, and building space mirrors to deflect sunlight away from the Earth.
First, do no harm
The Asilomar conference grew out of a need to provide guidelines, both scientific and ethical, for scientists pursuing research in this area, as well as ways to coordinate research and experimentation.
There is also a clear understanding in the scientific community that geoengineering research — let alone actual implementation — is going to be controversial right out of the starting gate.
MacCracken said the role of government is obviously crucial to establishing guidelines, and there were representatives from both the executive and legislative branches of government at the conference, he said.
Further down the road, even bigger transnational organizations will have to play a part. “As soon as you say I’m going to do something that’s going to effect the entire planet that we all share clearly you’re going to have to have larger entities involved.”
Already the Royal Society in the UK has addressed geoengineering, and government both there and in the US have been briefed on the subject. The National Academy of Sciences is expected to incorporate geoengineering into a comprehensive climate report due out late this year.
Conference findings are expected within a month, MacCracken said, and there may be a follow up conference in the future.
Not a replacement for CO2 reduction
MacCracken stressed that geoengineering, even if it did work and was implemented, cannot be a replacement for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“The first and most important thing is we have to stop causing as much climate change as we are doing now. There is no way any of our actions are going to be able to reverse change at the rate that it’s going.”