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Copenhagen: The truth is not yet out there

Cross-posted from Heliophage

For those not eager to trawl through the aforementioned geoengineering tweetstream here’s the most interesting thing I took from the geoengineering session — a point on which, interestingly, David Keith and Ken Caldeira, who are keen to see and do more research on the topic, are close to agreeing with David Santillo of Greenpeace, who isn’t.

The problem is in some ways pretty obvious: No one knows whether geoengineering can really be made to work. As Keith pointed out, even for the best characterised putative intervention — a stratospheric aerosol like those produced by volcanoes — the comparatively cursory research to date has turned up a wealth of complexities that have not yet been addressed by proponents, and more research will turn up even more of them. To Keith and Caldeira, this raises a nightmare scenario: that the world will have in the back of its mind that geoengineering is there as a fallback, will find that it needs a fallback, and will then find out that the fallback is not there in any practical sense. On this basis the sooner it is clear that there is no way out the better: time to do some serious research.

That is similar to Santillo’s position, except he doesn’t want to do the research needed to find out for sure. I took it from his talk that he wants instead to create a climate of opinion where the nagging hope that geoengineering might save us was firmly shut down more or less a priori, with commitment to emission cuts the sole and reaffirmed goal of all.

In making this argument, he came up with a nice pithy account of what he sees as the 5 drivers for geoengineering research: desperation, aspiration, fascination, delegation, remuneration. The first two he sees as essentially reasonable, the third — “it is just such fun to play with these ideas!” — troubling, the fourth — “O good, someone else can solve the climate I don’t have to” — dangerous and morally defective (my term not his), and the fifth beyond the pale. (Actually in the presentation he didn’t call the fifth driver “remuneration” he just called it “money” — but he told me later he’d thought about listing it as remuneration, and I think it’s slicker that way…)

What all these people agree on is that the lopsided way in which geoengineering is discussed, with a level of prominence in the media (and the unpublished musings of researchers, in my experience) and the imagination disproportionate to the actual level of knowledge among experts, needs to be seen as a real problem. Geoengineering is widely enough discussed that the thought it might be there as a last resort is widespread and quite possibly spreading wider, even though it still may be an illusion. Keith laid out the argument for reducing this disproportionality in a more formal way, looking at scenarios comparing the value of “Early Learning” v. late learning. I didn’t note down all the details, but Early Learning seemed, by the economic metric he was using, to be a big, big winner.

PS: Those interested in the twittering per se may possibly want to check out this further post at Heliophage


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