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Talking About Geoengineering

Climate Intervention: California conference calls for research that is responsible and open

by Cheryl Hogue
April 5, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 14

Planetary Engineering
Credit: D.D. Dale
Scientists at the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies discussed technological possibilities, research strategies, and ethics for geoengineering.
Credit: D.D. Dale
Scientists at the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies discussed technological possibilities, research strategies, and ethics for geoengineering.

The world needs more conversations about research on geoengineering techniques--carbon sequestration and solar reflection, for example--to prepare for possible action against rapid global warming, an international scientific conference in Pacific Grove, Calif., concluded on March 26.

The conference called for deliberations among scientists, governments, and the public to ensure that research on the risks, impacts, and efficacy of climate intervention – commonly called geoengineering -- is conducted responsibly and transparently. Also, potential consequences of this technology need to be thoroughly understood, said a press statement from the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies.

"Such discussions should be undertaken with humility and recognition of the threats posed by the rapid increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions," said the statement from the conference. The statement also affirmed that governments will be the decision makers on whether geoengineering methods eventually get used.

The statement stressed that a strong commitment to emissions reduction and development of low-carbon technology is independent of whether geoengineering ultimately proves safe and feasible.

Yet society's efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions have been limited and leave open the possibility of large changes to the planet's climate in the future, the statement said. Therefore, the statement continued, it is important to conduct research on climate intervention methods – including technology to strip carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it or to reflect sunlight into space (C&EN, Nov. 23, 2009, page 28).

The conference ran March 22–26 at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, a venue that the event's organizers chose intentionally. They hope the geoengineering meeting will be as pivotal the International Congress on Recombinant DNA Molecules in February 1975, which was also held at Asilomar. The conference 35 years ago produced voluntary guidelines for safe handing of the products of genetic engineering and proved to be highly influential in the development of this technology.

The current gathering was designed to kick off international discussion on geoengineering, said Margaret S. Leinen, the head of the Climate Response Fund, a nonprofit organization focused on climate intervention research. Most of the approximately 200 attendees came from the U.S. and the U.K., but a handful came from 13 other countries. Participants' expertise ranged from the natural and social sciences to law, engineering, and the humanities.

"Not everyone who needed to be here was," Leinen said. "But it sets the stage so people in technology and science are open to this conversation."

The Climate Response Fund, an environmental group, developed the conference in partnership with the Guttman Initiative, a philanthropic group with a goal of assimilating social responsibility into current lifestyles.

This week's Asilomar conference follows action on geoengineering by three national scientific groups. For instance, the American Meteorological Society in 2009 released a policy statement on geoengineering, which was adopted as a position by the American Geophysical Union. The U.K. Royal Society released an influential report on the subject late last year.

Earlier this month, the Royal Society announced it is working with TWAS (the academy of sciences for the developing world) and the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group, on an initiative to ensure strict governance of geoengineering projects to reflect sunlight back into space –an effort called solar radiation management.



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