The US Congress is finally taking on the controversial idea of geoengineering — large-scale, deliberate manipulation of the climate system to counteract climate change.
Yesterday the House committee on science and technology heard testimony from
five scientists, including big-name geoengineering proponents people who have called for government support of geoengineering research, including Lee Lane, codirector of the American Enterprise Institute’s geoengineering project, Ken Caldeira of Stanford University and John Shepherd of the University of Southampton. Shepherd recently chaired a Royal Society working group, which also included Caldeira and which released a report on geoengineering in September.
In his opening statement, committee chair Bart Gordon emphasized that there are many uncertainties about geoengineering, including the potential for catastrophic side-effects. But, he said, “the climate is changing”, so “we should accept the possibility that certain climate engineering proposals may merit consideration”.
Gordon announced that this hearing would be the first of three or four hearings to explore geoengineering over the next eight months, and that the committee planned to work with the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. The chairman of the Commons committee will testify before the House committee this spring, Gordon said.
Much of the witness testimony involved explaining geoengineering to the committee members and clearing up misconceptions, such as the notion that geoengineering would be a replacement for cutting emissions and developing alternative fuel sources. Geoengineering would be just one part of a climate plan that would also include emissions reductions and adaptation strategies, they said.
The witnesses also emphasized that the government should support research into a variety of geoengineering proposals — including strategies for sun blockade and carbon dioxide removal. Currently, the Department of Energy supports carbon capture at power plants, which could be expanded, Caldeira notes, but both he and Lane expressed concern that there is no support for exploring techniques to block sunlight. This is something NSF and NASA should take on, they say.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a congressional hearing without a few incongruous political statements. Adrian Smith of Nebraska pulled witness Alan Robock into an argument in which Smith defended the nutritional benefits of beef, and Dana Rohrabacher from southern California suggested that the witnesses wanted to take away people’s frequent flier miles and bar them from flying to see their loved ones.
But the hearing was not about whether climate change was occurring, so the congressional skeptics were either absent or kept mum — although Rohrabacher made sure to submit his boilerplate list of “top scientists from around the world that do not believe global warming is happening at all” and noted, for the record, that the polar ice caps were refreezing.
The hearing coincided with an important vote in the Senate, in which the Environment and Public Works Committee approved a climate bill that would require companies to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent within the next 11 years (though the Republicans boycotted the vote). The United Nations is also currently holding a climate change summit in Barcelona and the Copenhagen climate convention is a month away.
Gordon noted that “the timing [of the hearing] has nothing to do with the pending negotiations in Copenhagen”.
Image: Bart Gordon