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EnvironmentThis Climate Debate is loads of Hot Air

This Climate Debate is loads of Hot Air

This Climate Debate is loads of Hot Air

Geoengineering is having a moment. But much of the media coverage is failing to capture the actual debate.

A weather balloon. DALL-E.

We’ve been hearing quite a bit these days about geoengineering – the varied scientific theories and governance ideas that could eventually result in technological interventions to assist cool the planet.

A weather balloon stunt in Mexico by a small startup called Make Sunsets generated loads of hot headlines, though that solar geoengineering “experiment” was so tiny that it couldn’t possibly have yielded any physical effects. After the MIT Technology Review broke the news about that weather balloon stunt, the Guardian, the NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, Time and other outlets followed with stories.

The notion that non-public, for-profit actors could take matters into their very own hands and begin fiddling with the planet’s thermostat has, understandably, captured the eye of science writers, climate reporters and their editors. Geoengineering is clearly having a media moment. But much of the coverage is failing to accurately reflect the controversy around geoengineering. This is essentially an issue with stories that seek to present two sides–supporters standing on one side and opponents way over on the opposite. There are several problems with this false dichotomy:

    1.  Entrepreneurs behind private startups like Make Sunset are wildly different from the scientists and environmental law experts who study geoengineering. They shouldn’t be grouped together as a side.
    2.  It gins up a “controversy” when there was nearly unanimous condemnation of the Make Sunsets stunt by people of all perspectives. There is no such thing as a vigorous, two-sided disagreement over whether to launch more balloons in Baja crammed with sulfur dioxide.
    3.  No serious person is advocating for any large-scale deployment of solar geoengineering or substituting it for other urgent climate change mitigations, so the shorthand use of “opponent” or “supporter” is itself misleading and pushes voices to extremes.
    4.  Anyone can float a balloon. Experiments and ideas (and stunts) needs to be assessed on their very own merits in the event that they’re going to be granted a media platform.

Take this recent CNN story titled “Supporters of a controversial climate solution say it might be key. Critics consider it’s the path to catastrophe.” That headline suggests there’s some silver-bullet geoengineering proposal that “supporters” claim would solve climate change in the event that they were allowed to do it. Actually, the tutorial sources that this story describes as “supporters” simply support the goal of further studying geoengineering. Which is to say they advocate for pursuing responsible research into scientific technologies, the environmental and societal risks of deploying them, and the legal and governance structures that will be required to forestall use or misuse of those technologies by private corporations or state actors. Most of those “supporters” in truth exhibit a healthy amount of skepticism, if not downright suspicion or pessimism, toward the possible technological interventions. They too worry in regards to the unintended, negative consequences. And so they universally say that geoengineering is not any substitute for urgent emissions reductions and energy transition.

Against this, the experts who’re quoted as “opponents” in news coverage just like the CNN story do not only oppose some specific solar geoengineering experiment. They oppose the very idea of studying geoengineering. “Simply because we’re desperate doesn’t suddenly make solar geoengineering idea, since the risks are so immense,” Lili Fuhr, from the Center for International Environmental Law, told CNN. But nobody thinks doing geoengineering is idea, do they? To suggest that those that support the thought of geoengineering research think that deploying it’s idea is a straw man argument.

The potential risks are legion. They include, but should not limited to, altering rainfall and monsoon patterns, damaging the ozone layer, increasing global conflicts, and – most unacceptable of all – giving political cover for fossil fuel industries to proceed polluting moderately than cut greenhouse gas emissions. Journalists who’re covering future geoengineering developments should interrogate these very risks and concerns to assist make clear the bad set of options.

Here is an inventory of questions one could start with:

  • What can we know, and still not know, about how stratospheric aerosol injection and other solar geoengineering efforts could affect weather, rainfall, and crops? 
  • How might those risks compare to the altered rainfall patterns, flooding, and extreme heat that we’re already seeing resulting from climate change? 
  • Would small-scale field experiments fill within the gaps of what computer modeling can tell us?
  • What do the people living in Global South countries most in danger from climate change take into consideration studying geoengineering, and do they deserve a say? 
  • How will governments take care of private startups in the event that they proceed to perform unscientific, unregulated experiments?
  • If an organization or country did unilaterally launch a significant geoengineering effort, what would the international community be prepared to do? 
  • Is there social science data that implies simply studying geoengineering would deter societies from pursuing urgently needed emissions reductions? 
  • If we overshoot the 1.5 or 2.0 degree Celsius targets set by the Paris Agreement, what other policies can be found? 
  • Have fossil fuel industries made any move to co-opt, or profit from, geoengineering? If not, does that assuage the concerns of some opponents?
  • Is banning academic research option to guide public policy?

OK, that last query is rhetorical. But it surely sure hasn’t worked well within the case of Schedule 1 drugs. The decades-long prohibition on research into psychedelics only delayed scientific understanding. Now, I personally think ingesting LSD and getting behind the wheel of a automobile is a terrible idea, but I need scientists to be allowed to research potential therapeutic effects and impaired driving.

One group that’s been surprisingly absent from some, though not all, of this coverage is the Climate Overshoot Commission, which is an independent body of members from all over the world who’re working on recommendations for a technique to scale back the risks if global warming goals are exceeded. The commission, which operates as a part of the Paris Peace Forum, just wrapped up a gathering this month in Jakarta, Indonesia as they work toward a recent report. “The commission is the primary international body that’s taken on the mandate of taking seriously the peril and likelihood of exceeding the Paris targets and asking what meaning for the suitable or essential climate response,” says the UCLA Emmett Institute’s Faculty Director Edward A. Parson. He has played a supporting role within the commission’s work.

It’s possible that in the approaching days and weeks, we’ll hear about more rogue experiments by commercially driven startups that need to test out their model for cooling the planet, be it stratospheric aerosol injection or iron salt aerosol interactions or fill-in-the-blank technology I’ve never heard of.

There’s certain to be more mainstream news coverage of 1) these rogue experiments and a couple of) the evolving arguments for and against the further study of geoengineering. Hopefully, journalists and headline writers seek to deal with them because the distinct phenomenon that they’re. And hopefully all of us ask tough questions that can get us closer to an agreement on what to do in regards to the set of bad options we’re facing.

geo-engineering, media coverage


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