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Geoengineering: save the world, or doom us all?

Is geoengineering the best way to fight climate change? It all depends on whom you ask.

Geoengineering, of course, is any scheme to deliberately manipulate the climate to try to counteract global warming. You’ll remember it mainly for the most outlandish ideas to cut down on the amount of sunlight reaching Earth: the fleet of mirrored sunshades positioned between the Sun and the Earth, or the massive zeppelins pumping cooling aerosols into the stratosphere from giant hoses tethered to the ground.

Last week, ecologists had their chance to weigh in on some of these proposals at a session — apparently the first on this topic for this meeting — at the Ecological Society of America conference in Albuquerque. I’ve got a story over on Nature News of the sorts of things they talked about. As some readers have pointed out, many ecological impacts of proposed geoengineering schemes did not make it into the story. They include the fact that no matter how much you try to cut down on solar radiation reaching earth, the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have other knock-on effects, such as acidifying the world’s oceans.

In general, the ecologists at the Albuquerque meeting seemed as if they were just now startling to grapple with the enormity of some of the geoengineering suggestions; these are, after all, ideas that are more normally tossed around in geophysics or atmospheric conferences. But if geoengineering is really going to take place — a question that is far from answered at this point, as so many doubts about it remain — those who study life on land are going to need to be integrally involved.

Expect more information in early September, when Britain’s Royal Society is expected to release a major report on geoengineering.


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