International Geoengineering Rules Are Urgently Needed, Researchers Argue

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As talk of geoengineering as a possible partial solution to anthropogenic climate change has grown over recent times, it has become an urgent need that there is a set of international rules put into place to govern such activities, some of those involved in the sector have begun arguing.

Arizona, for instance, has approved a small-scale solar-dimming geoengineering test project to begin later this year — a project which will spray reflective chemicals into the atmosphere in order to ascertain the feasibility of such approaches as a means to reducing global temperatures.

While the tests in Arizona — conducted by Harvard University researchers — will only release around 2.2 lbs (1 kg) worth of mineral dust into the atmosphere, and thus likely don’t pose much a threat, they still represent an escalation.

As explained at a recent speech at Arizona State University, Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative head Janos Pasztor stated: “We could be in danger of events overtaking society’s capacity to respond prudently and effectively.”

That’s most likely an understatement, as once one country begins large-scale geoengineering, neighboring ones are either likely to begin as well or to respond aggressively.

Given that the official 2015 Paris Climate Agreement goals of limiting global average warming to under 2° Celsius aren’t going to happen — due to the pace of transition away from fossil fuels and industrial-style agriculture being far too slow — it seems fairly likely that at some point during the next 2-5 decades large-scale geoengineering will be attempted somewhere in the world.

What’s particularly notable about such attempts is that many of them — global dimming by way of atmospheric spraying of reflective chemicals, for instance — wouldn’t actually do anything to lessen the intensifying global weirding and warming, but would simply add another layer of complexity on top, by way of attempting to add further reflective potential.

Does that sound like a good idea? It doesn’t to me. I’d guess that the blowback that would follow would be highly unpredictable.

Also notable is that the potentially far more dangerous problem of “ocean acidification” wouldn’t be addressed by such plans. I put “ocean acidification” in quotes there because, yes, I am aware that the oceans don’t literally become acidic, but they do acidify, which is what the phrase refers. What the term is referencing is the process whereby acidification of what had been alkaline or near neutral occurs — which results in a loss of the ability of many types of ocean life to form bodies and to exist (in the acidified areas in question).

More importantly, though, such a process has been associated numerous times in the past with changes in microbial oceanic life that end up resulting in the release of massive amounts of poisonous gases from the ocean over long periods of time. This process was apparently part of numerous mass extinction events in the past — it would seem prudent to avoids such a thing then, would it not?

Reuters provides more information: “A UN panel of climate experts, in a leaked draft of a report about global warming due out in October, said such solar geoengineering, at larger scale may be ‘economically, socially, and institutionally infeasible.’ Developing world scholars from a range of climate-vulnerable countries noted in the journal Nature last week that ‘the technique is controversial, and rightly so. It is too early to know what its effects would be: it could be very helpful or very harmful’.”

Continuing that line of thought, a co-executive director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment by the name of Simon Nicholson was quoted by Reuters as stating: “The urgency comes from the desire to get out in front of something that might be important a few years from now. The risk comes from the slippery slope argument, that it could quickly move from something that looks like a test to something that looks like deployment.”

Speaking about the plans for a test in Arizona, Nicholson noted: “They could do this experiment tomorrow. Under Harvard research guidelines and US law there is nothing stopping them. All the boxes are checked.”

The only reason for easing into it being “because they realize that, as the first labeled solar geoengineering experiment, they have an obligation to get it right.”

Well, what does “right” entail exactly in such a context? Who gets to decide? Who determines how data gets interpreted and/or sold to the public? I’ll note here that I’m likely to remain skeptical of such geoengineering projects even if test data suggest they are “safe.” What about you?

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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