In a move which has been Christened the "Berlin Declaration," a leading scientist at the Climate Engineering Conference 2014 (CEC 14) held in the German capital has issued a call for the formation for the first proper framework to guide large-scale geoengineering projects aimed at altering the earth's atmosphere.
Professor Steve Rayner, co-director of the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, has released a draft of the framework at CEC 14 for review and amendment by the event’s attendees, who include leading climate scientists and geoengineering experts, as well senior policymakers from around the globe.
The draft directly addresses public fears surrounding the usage of large-scale geoengineering measures to stymie or even reverse global warming, and calls for such concerns to be tempered by thorough consideration of the full ramifications of deploying of these technologies.
“The emergence of interest in climate geoengineering, broadly defined as the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract climate change, has provoked controversy about the practicality and wisdom of such ideas,” reads the draft version of the framework.
“New technologies have the potential to provide significant benefits to society, but they can also be controversial. Indeed the controversies surrounding new technologies have often led to a backlash against their development, as has been seen in the fields of genetically modified organisms and nuclear.”
Geoengineering proposals for ameliorating climate change encompass a broad range of measures, the most notorious amongst them being solar radiation management (SRM). SRM entails reducing the amount of solar radiation which reaches the earth’s atmosphere by mean as outlandish and exotic as the seeding of artificial cloud cover or the dispatching of mirrors into orbit to deflect sunlight.
While these proposals offer humanity a glimmer of hope for remedying the dilemma of global warming, detractors warn they could be little more than stopgap measures that cause damage to the local environment in the short term, and exacerbate climate change in the long run.
A study published at the end of 2013 in the Journal of Geophysical Research which was authored by an international team of researchers from the University of Exeter, Rutgers University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, claimed that SRM technologies deployed on a large-scale could have an adverse impact on climate change over the long term if abruptly discontinued.
Rayner’s draft framework focuses in particular on SRM technologies, motivated by the difficulties he has experienced in undertaking related experiments due to public fears over their safety ramifications.
The Oxford professor previously took part in a failed climate engineering experiment launched by the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project (SPICE), which would have involved spraying 40 gallons of water into the atmosphere using a blimp floating at an altitude of a kilometre above the earth’s surface.
Despite the negligible impact the experiment would have had on the environment, it triggered significant furor amongst concerned members of the public.
Although the project was eventually cancelled due to unrelated factors, the experience taught Rayner that scientists need to give proper consideration to the social and political consequences of their geoengineering experiments. His current call for a geoengineering framework is intended to abet such considerations amongst his peers, and thus make their efforts more palatable to a jittery public.
Rayner expects geo-engineering to eventually follow the route of other new and controversial technologies, with initial fears ceding to a focus on their individual applications.
“A decade ago ‘nanotechnology’ was a word that was on everybody’s lips,” said Rayner at a CEC panel discussion. “My prediction is that the word ‘geoengineering will fall out of use, and be replaced by discussion of more specific technologies.”
Not everyone at CEC is so sanguine, however, with some warning that efforts to introduce a framework could have an effect opposite to that ended, serving to stymie the exploration of climate engineering.
One critic, leading American climate scientist Dr. Ken Caldeira, warns that the framework and other forms of geoengineering-specific regulation could “end up doing more harm than good” to cause of sound climate science, due to the potential for abuse by regulators.
Caldeira points out, for example, that the vagueness of geo-engineering as defined by the draft framework could be abused by regulators to prevent certain practices as simple and commonplace as painting the rooftops of houses white, while simultaneously permitting more complex climate engineering measures such as carbon sequestration.