In the last environmental politics meeting before Christmas we discussed geo-engineering.
We were eased into this subject by Corner and Pidgeon’s (2010) article on “Geoengineering the climate: the social and ethical implications”. Geoengineering refers to the intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate to counteract anthropogenic climate change or its warming effects. There are a number of different engineering techniques being proposed. The Royal Society has divided these into two broad types, those that remove/sequester carbon (imitating trees, ocean fertilization, biomass, afforestation) and those that manage solar radiation (space-based reflectors, stratospheric aerosols, enhancing surface and cloud albedo). The question posed by Corner and Pidgeon is whether this intentional manipulation of the global climate is ethically acceptable? As the authors highlight, we have been intentionally and unintentionally engineering the environment, including the climate, plants and animals, for a very long time. The difference now is that geoengineering is an intentional proposal to manipulate the climate on a large scale. Is this right? And by whom and through what processes are decisions on geoengineering going to be taken?
Although the majority of geoengineering research proposals are still in their infancy, the field is evolving quickly. Small-scale testing of some proposals, such as ocean fertilisation, has begun, and the IPCC held its first geoengineering workshop last year to scope advances in knowledge for inclusion in its next assessment. In Britain, the first pilot project was due to begin in September 2011. However, after criticism this date was pushed back in order to extend public consultation. This decision to extend public consultation raises a number of questions about how to engage society in the geoengineering decision making process.
Geoengineering is not a simple topic. It requires a high degree of technical and scientific understanding and it initiates gut reactions. For example, I would prefer not to discuss geoengineering. I would rather it didn’t exist. In this respect the article had a lot to teach me – not only could it categorise my view but it also challenged my knowledge on the subject. I was for instance surprised by the classification of geoengineering projects, as many of these are already underway, such as large scale afforestation and bioengineering of biomass crops. I also realised I was far more open to some ideas than others, which raised the question of how and why I drew the line at ocean fertilization. We have to question these reactions in ourselves and begin to engage with this subject because if we do not it will be decided by others, most likely by those that have the power to fund it. Scientists are keen to advance their research and in some cases have sought the financial support of private donors as they move closer toward the pilot stage. In terms of climate change research the amount of funding given to geoengineering projects is still relatively small and decisions on pilot projects is evaluated on a case by case basis, but the political pressure will increase with the financial and scientific stakes and the goods they promise. As Pidgeon and Corner indicate, there are many practical impediments to meaningful public engagement in issues like geoengineering, and even more to ensuring views and opinions are incorporated into decision making processes, but the consequences of not surely make it worthwhile confronting these practical difficulties.