Geoengineering Studies—Plans B and C for Climate Change—Endorsed

The New York Times science writer examines the findings of the National Academy of Sciences panel released Feb. 10 that support further research on the two geoengineering strategies of carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management.
February 14, 2015, 5am PST | Irvin Dawid
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The endorsement from the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, a division of the National Research Council, is a significant step as the strategies are viewed as controversial and opposed by some environmental groups.

"Almost all of the [geoengineering] research has been done on computers, simulating the effects of the technique on the climate," writes Henry Fountain. "The panel said the research could include small-scale outdoor experiments, which many scientists say are necessary to better understand whether and how geoengineering would work."

The only previous attempt at conducting "an outdoor test of some of the engineering concepts", i.e., outside a computer lab, occurred in Britain in 2011. "It provoked a public outcry. The experiment was eventually canceled," writes Fountain.

While Plan A remains reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the panel said, "It may be prudent to examine additional options for limiting the risks from climate change.”

“The committee felt that the need for information at this point outweighs the need for shoving this topic under the rug,” Marcia K. McNutt, chairwoman of the panel and the editor in chief of the journal Science, said at a news conference in Washington.

The Two Geoengineering Strategies:

  • Carbon dioxide removal: Low risk but expensive. "But the group said research was needed to develop efficient and effective methods to both remove the gas and store it so it remains out of the atmosphere indefinitely."

While Fountain doesn't elaborate on this process, just two days earlier he wrote about a $10 million carbon capture and storage project in Iceland.

  • Solar radiation management: Far more controversial, may "have unintended effects on weather patterns around the world" but inexpensive. "Most discussions of the concept focus on the idea of dispersing sulfates or other chemicals high in the atmosphere, where they would reflect sunlight, in some ways mimicking the effect of a large volcanic eruption.

Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report acknowledged that geoengineering may have a role in climate change mitigation strategies, as has the UK Royal Society in 2009.

The NAS panel was "supported by NASA and other federal agencies, including what the reports described as the 'U.S. intelligence community'," writes Fountain—posted here by Planetizen in 2013.

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Published on Friday, February 13, 2015 in The New York Times - Science
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