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Lawmakers Consider Geoengineering Research Needs

by Cheryl Hogue
November 23, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 47

Shepherd (left) and Caldeira
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

The House of Representative’s Science & Technology Committee began to probe research needs for geoengineering earlier this month. Chariman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said the panel’s Nov. 5 hearing marked the first that he was aware of on geoengineering by any congressional committee.

“We begin what I believe will be a long conversation,” Gordon said at the hearing. “The climate is changing, and the onset of impacts may outpace the world’s political and economic ability to avoid them,” he continued.

Gordon acknowledged that many scientists are warming to the idea of geoengineering. “At its best, geoengineering might only buy us some time,” he said. These technologies “will likely only be considered as a potential stopgap tool in a much wider package of climate-change mitigation and adaptation strategies,” he said.

Geoengineering will require years of international research, he said, regardless of whether these technologies ever get deployed.

Scientists testifying at the hearing discussed the possibilities of a federal research program on geo­engineering.

The U.S. government should undertake a multiagency research program in both solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal techniques, recommended Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University. The National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration could sponsor work on solar reflection projects, he said. In addition, the Energy Department’s current research on scrubbing CO2 from coal-fired power plants’ emissions could branch out to include removing the gas from the atmosphere.

Alan Robock, professor of climatology at Rutgers University, told the committee that both NASA and the Defense Department should be involved in any efforts to inject aerosols into the stratosphere. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration needs to be involved in any solar radiation management investigations, too, he said.

Lee Lane, codirector of the geoengineering project at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, argued that the first goal of research on geoengineering should focus on managing sunlight. These projects would yield larger economic payoffs and reverse highly destructive climate change more rapidly than CO2-stripping efforts, he said.

Others disagreed, saying that CO2 removal techniques are essential because the gas lasts so long in the atmosphere. John Shepherd, who chaired the working group that produced the U.K. Royal Society’s recent report on geoengineering, said research must include both solar reflection and CO2 stripping and not focus on a single technology.

And essential to any research agenda is an exit strategy—planning how to eventually stop using geoengineering technology, said Shepherd, an earth sciences professorial research fellow at the University of Southampton, in England.

As it crafts a plan for federal research on geoengineering, the House is reaching across the Atlantic. Gordon said his panel is working in parallel with the U.K. House of Commons’ Science & Technology Committee on possible frameworks for regulating domestic and international efforts on geoengineering.

The Commons’ committee says its inquiry will focus in part on whether there is a need for international regulation of geoengineering and geoengineering research and, if so, the type of regulatory mechanisms that need to be developed.

Gordon pledged that by mid-2010, his committee would hold two or three more hearings to explore scientific, engineering, ethical, economic, and other concerns related to geoengineering.


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