The White House should coordinate a multi-agency research program to investigate the feasibility of using “climate remediation” technologies – more commonly referred to as “geoengineering” – to stave off the worst consequences of global warming, a task force organized by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) recommended Tuesday.
“The primary and single most important recommendation of our committee is that the government start doing research,” said Jane Long, co-chair of the task force and Associate Director-at-Large at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. "We should not move forward in ignorance.”
Various distinguished bodies have determined that research is needed on technologies that could be used to directly interfere with the global climate system, including pumping particles into the air to block the sun and actively mining the atmosphere for carbon dioxide. The BPC report largely follows in those footsteps while working out some of the details of how such a program might work in the United States.
Consisting of scientists, engineers, environmentalists and policy experts, the task force recommended that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) take the lead in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget, which controls the federal purse strings. The goal is not to develop such technologies but to understand them.
The United States should investigate whether geoengineering techniques could be deployed as an emergency measure and be ready to participate in international discussions about the issue, the report says. But science isn’t enough: The research programme should embed the science and engineering within the deeper context of society and government. To help ensure this, the report recommends that OSTP be guided by an independent commission representing diverse interests.
Despite the general consensus among experts on the need for research, geoengineering remains a touchy subject that evokes both fear and awe. Indeed, many worry that it could simultaneously inspire laziness and a particularly dangerous form of hubris. After all, if mankind can quickly and cheaply dial down the temperature, do we really need to worry about aggressively reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
The answer from the BPC task force and others is an emphatic “yes”. Geoengineering cannot replace climate mitigation because allowing greenhouse gases to build up indefinitely would perpetuate and accentuate imbalances in the biogeochemical processes that govern the life on earth. But it could, perhaps, buy time.
The report comes on the heels of a resolution by the European Parliament expressing “opposition to proposals for large scale geo-engineering.” That resolution follows a decision by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity last year in Nagoya, Japan, to ban geoengineering except in cases of small-scale research.
This kind of opposition is already having an impact. Just last week, UK scientists decided to delay a geoengineering experiment scheduled to take place this month. The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering experiment, known as SPICE, would have pumped water vapor into the air to create a cloudy haze and reflect some sunlight back into space.
At least for the time being, the BPC task force called for informal cooperation and engagement at the international level rather than complex multilateral negotiations over some kind of a treaty. The idea is to develop international norms organically through research partnerships, said Stephen Rademaker, task force co-chair and former assistant US secretary of state. “To the extent possible,” he said, “America’s interaction with other countries on this would be at the level of scientists and engineers.”