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‘Climate intervention’ conference winds down with solemn assessment

After wading through a morass of legal, moral and ethical issues over the course of a week, a group of international climate scientists and experts came to this conclusion: new research must be conducted into technologies that could be used to systematically alter the earth’s climate system – and take the edge off global warming.

Participants in a geoengineering meeting at the beach-side Asilomar Conference Center outside Monterey, California, called for a broader dialogue within civil society and government, while suggesting that these discussions “should be undertaken with humility and recognition of the threats posed by the rapid increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.”

There were plenty of disagreements along the way, as one might expect. The notion that humans might one day attempt to assert active control over the earth’s climate – by blocking the sun using techniques that have been collectively dubbed “solar radiation management,” perhaps, or managing the biosphere so as to dial in carbon dioxide levels of our choosing – is enough to spur a mixture of fear and awe in almost anybody. That kind of intervention raises all kinds of questions about unintended consequences, but doing nothing carries its own risks. It was this fear that drove the discussions in Asilomar. Here’s an extract from the official statement by conference organizers:

“The fact that humanity’s efforts to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases (mitigation) have been limited to date is a cause of deep concern. Additionally, uncertainties in the response of the climate system to increased greenhouse gases leave open the possibility of very large future changes. It is thus important to initiate further research in all relevant disciplines to better understand and communicate whether additional strategies to moderate future climate change are, or are not, viable, appropriate and ethical.”

This isn’t the first time scientists have come out with such an assessment of geo-engineering technologies. The Royal Society released a landmark report on geoengineering last September, and both the American Meteorology Society and the American Geophysical Union have endorsed a statement saying much the same thing. But the Asilomar conference marked the largest and most diverse geoengineering discussion to date.

The conference was modelled on a meeting at the same location 35 years earlier, when biologists met to lay out the rules of the road for work on recombinant DNA in the budding field of genetic engineering. At the second Asilomar, more than 175 experts from various fields, including physical and social scientists, ethicists, lawyers and the like, gathered in an effort to craft some basic principles that could help guide research into the geoengineering.

For more on all of this, see next week’s issue of Nature. And for those who are curious, the full Asilomar statement is available here. This doesn’t represent a consensus statement of the conference but a joint statement by the organizing committee; individual attendees now have the choice of signing their names to the document.


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