The climate geoengineering genie — Why we all need to be paying attention

The last couple of weeks have been busy ones on the climate change calendar. On Sept. 23, a parade of world leaders gathered at a climate change summit organized by United Nations' Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to pledge renewed attention and new actions. The summit was preceded by the world's largest ever climate-focused civil society mobilization, with an estimated 400,000 people marching through the streets of New York, and has been followed by a flurry of pledges from governments, the business community and citizen groups.

Such actions inject new saliency and urgency into the climate change conversation. In doing so, they offer a glimmer of hope that humanity may yet rise to meet this most daunting challenge.

Yet, despite all of the goodwill on display in New York, it is clear that much work remains to be done. Just a handful of days before the climate summit, the World Meteorological Organization had released data indicating that global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations had increased, in 2013, at their fastest rate for 30 years.

When read alongside projections from the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which suggests that the world is currently on a track that will likely produce 4 degrees Celsius or more of warming above pre-industrial averages by century's end, optimism can be hard to sustain.

The brutal truth is that the world is making only limited progress in tackling climate change. The actions promised in New York, even if they all materialize (and the history of such promises suggests that's unlikely), are only a small piece of what the scientific community tells us is needed.

It is no wonder, then, that a growing chorus of voices is pressing for consideration of a "Plan B" to tackle climate change. This Plan B is climate geoengineering — basically, large-scale technological interventions designed to stem or slow climate change or to blunt its impacts.

Now, to be clear, climate geoengineering technologies are not the kinds of high-tech responses one usually hears about — the development of renewable energy technologies, construction of sea walls and the like. Rather, climate geoengineering refers to a set of responses of a different character. Most are concerned with trying to reflect some amount of incoming solar radiation back into space (so-called solar radiation management or SRM schemes), or are about finding ways to draw down and store greenhouse gases that currently reside in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide removal, or CDR approaches).

Climate geoengineering technologies are still very much in the realm of speculation. They remain the domain of a handful of small research groups, modeling what would happen, say, if sulfate particles were introduced into the stratosphere to mimic the kinds of reflective actions we see following volcanic eruptions. Other groups are working on developing systems to promote bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). And there are a host of other climate geoengineering techniques being sketched out on drawing boards around the world, from breaking up high-level cirrus clouds to more readily allow solar radiation to pass back into space to the dumping of large amounts of iron into the world's oceans to create great carbon-inhaling blooms of phytoplankton.

Yet while still largely speculative, talk of climate geoengineering is gaining traction.

A couple of months back, I traveled to Berlin to participate in one of the first major international conferences on climate geoengineering. The meeting was organized by a German research center, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, and received funding from the German government.

The Berlin conference showed climate geoengineering to be a dynamic and fast-moving area of scientific investigation. Researchers spoke about a host of new ideas, and there was much excitement about the possibilities of careful climate geoengineering being part of a strategic response to climate change.

Yet there was also much controversy at the conference as participants grappled with a host of thorny questions and implications. How would climate geoengineering schemes be governed on the domestic and international levels? Who would decide whether and how a geoengineering scheme would be developed and deployed? Who are the likely winners and losers in a geoengineering world? Is geoengineering a realistic option as part of a broader set of strategies aimed at tackling climate change, or is it a distraction from the real mitigation work that needs to be done to stem the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

Such questions received much consideration but broach no easy answers. What was clear is that the next decade is going to be incredibly important, not just for physical and social science research on climate geoengineering, but for engagement between the different communities of research and those who make policy.

I pushed one basic point about the connection between the research and policy communities in my presentation on the conference's final day. Basically, now is the time for large-scale policy engagement, and shying away from engagement, by policymakers or the research community, is not a realistic option. Some have argued, compellingly, that to talk about climate geoengineering in any way is, at best, a distraction, and at worst a way to let the actors responsible for the precarious environmental situation off the hook. There is value in such an argument.

Here's the thing, though: Climate geoengineering is a far too enticing and powerful set of technological options to be wished away. The geoengineering genie is not going to be pushed back into its bottle. Even if climate geoengineering is a thoroughly bad idea, there are powerful social, economic and cultural forces driving us to consider it. And so consider it we must.

We are entering, in climate terms, what Australian author Paul Gilding has called the "age of consequences." The mainstream and established science of climate change tells us that there will be much uncertainty and suffering tied to climate change in the years ahead. As we pass more deeply into this age of climate consequences, there needs to be a high level of public understanding and engagement with the kinds of options that are open to us. This entails real and robust conversations about a range of difficult and thorny subjects: the promises and limits of renewable energy technologies; about social transition based on high-prosperity/lower-consumption pathways; about nuclear energy, natural gas fracking and, yes, climate geoengineering technologies.

"Climate geoengineering" sounds like yawn-inducing academic speak. It is, though, a topic of critical and growing importance. The Berlin conference made it clear that anybody concerned with national and international responses to climate change, and with all that climate action means for the future of energy systems, domestic and international economic and security relations, and human and environmental well-being in the broadest sense, needs to be paying attention to the rapidly evolving climate geoengineering conversation.

Nicholson is director of the Global Environmental Politics Program in the School of International Service at American University and co-director of the Washington Geoengineering Consortium. Follow him @simonnicholson4.

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