Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The importance of continuing climate engineering research

One of the leitmotifs of the recent discussions around the SPICE project technology test cancellation was the support for the remainder (90%) of the project to continue. Objectors’ responses to allowing researchers to explore climate engineering are entirely predictable. First, we were accused of being ‘in it for the research money’, an obnoxious slur borrowed from climate sceptics when describing climate scientists. Now, we are ‘sweet and naive’: well meaning, bumbling boffins, trying to help but providing ammunition to the Machiavellian aims of politicians too lazy to do anything but retain the status quo. Next, I predict, we’ll be encouraged to turn on each other and our research will be used to try to ‘divide and conquer’. Differences of opinion are our modus operandi.

It’s already beginning to happen. Stock responses to papers suggesting climate engineering might work/have positive impacts (no matter how buried in caveats) include demonising the researchers involved. On the other hand, research, including several recently published papers, is already being used to suggest that climate engineering (and ergo researching climate engineering) is a waste of time. Just think about that paradox for a moment – ‘research into climate engineering shows research into climate engineering is worthless’.

What these papers demonstrate is that it is surely better to know than not. After all three large eruptions of the latter half of the 20th century rainfall patterns were impacted by increased aerosol. Does this mean that this form of climate engineering should be discarded? No, it doesn’t. Make no mistake, no form of climate engineering is a free ride and we cannot get back to where we were. There will be winners and losers if we deploy stratospheric aerosols or not, unless we change, as a species, very quickly.  The questions have to be ‘what are the impacts of both scenarios and which is preferable?’ I am often asked, ‘is climate engineering a good idea’. My response is ‘I’ve no idea, but it would be a good idea to know if it’s a bad idea’. Only through research can we generate the evidence base for a salient answer. It is vitally important that scientists are given the space within which to ask and try to answer difficult questions.

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