Climate Policy: If you don’t like Copenhagen, try Asilomar

I’m a little late getting to the 3 April 2010 issue of New Scientist, but it certainly isn’t too late to comment on the British Magazine’s editorial and article about a geoengineering conference in beautiful Asilomar CA the last week of March.

That’s right. Geoengineering. Engineering the planet for–presumably–the benefit of humankind.

The impetus behind that “gathering of key scientists and policy experts” was the failure to produce a robust agreement on controlling greenhouse gases at last year’s international climate change conference in Copenhagen. Without a viable way to limit the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, every credible climate model predicts significant changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, polar and glacial ice, and sea levels by the end of this century.

By the time the evidence reaches the point that the public will no longer be persuadable by denialists, it may be too late to reverse the trends. The policies advocated for but not achieved in Copenhagen will seem mild compared to what will then be necessary to avert massive relocation of populations and the resultant geopolitical friction.

That is the scenario if nations do not live up to the relatively modest goals set at Copenhagen. There is good reason to believe that those goals will not be achieved. No one made firm promises, and the Copenhagen conference resulted in no treaties with “teeth” to exert political pressure within individual nations.

So if decreasing CO2 emissions seems out of reach, what will be the alternative? More and more, the answer is looking like geoengineering. The conferees discussed everything from artificial trees to absorb CO2 (universally viewed as the safest means if possible and affordable) to launching reflective satellites or artificially lacing the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, as would result from a climate-changing volcanic eruption, to reflect more sunlight. One particularly risky and dubious scheme that, as Maxwell Smart used to say “just might work,” is seeding the Southern Ocean with iron to promote the growth of phytoplankton. The phytoplankton release a cloud-droplet-inducing sulfide into the atmosphere, leading to reflection.

These possible solutions are being considered now because they will need to be tested at least on a small scale if they are to be ready for rapid implementation on a larger scale.

But the article’s title is telling–and frightening in its implication: “Hacking the planet: Who decides?”

Who indeed? If the nations of the world can’t agree on climate treaties now, when the problem still appears to be solvable without resort to such extreme measures, how can we expect them to agree on geoengineering?

The article doesn’t mention that such issues in the past have been decided militarily because what is best for one country or group of countries may be harmful to another. The article doesn’t say anything specifically about international conflict, but it is obvious that harm/benefit tradeoff of changing climate patterns may lay the groundwork for war.

I, for one, would rather solve problems by the approaches discussed at Copenhagen than by those discussed at Asilomar. But I fear that the measures discussed at Asilomar may become necessary because short-term considerations are undermining Copenhagen’s long-term goals.

New Scientist Article Hacking the Planet

New Scientist Editorial To Hack the Planet, First Win Trust

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Fred Bortz