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Scientists Propose First Major Framework for Climate Engineering Experiments

'The Berlin Declaration' is one of the biggest signs yet that global climate engineering is making its way towards the mainstream.

by Brian Merchant
Aug 18 2014, 6:15pm

Mikkael Haggstrom

Professor Steve Rayner, the co-director of the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, has unveiled a proposal to create the first serious framework for future geoengineering experiments. 

It's a sign that what are still considered drastic and risky measures to combat climate change, like artificially injecting tiny particles into the Earth's atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, are drifting further into the purview of mainstream science. The august scientific body has issued a call to create "an open and transparent review process that ensures such experiments have the necessary social license to operate." 

Rayner, who served on the Royal Society of London's Working Group on Climate Geoengineering, released what's been christened the 'Berlin Declaration', at the world's first major climate engineering conference currently underway in Germany. Rayner issued a call for amendments from the conference's attendees, which includes top climate scientists, policymakers, and geoengineering scholars. 

The draft, in its current iteration, states that "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 power." You can read the full draft here—it was distributed at the Climate Engineering Conference in Berlin, where I'll be reporting from all week.

It's specifically focused on a subset of geoengineering projects called solar radiation management, which also includes proposals to brighten clouds over the ocean and to send tiny mirrors into orbit to deflect sunlight. The grander geoengineering projects, which fall into this category, have inspired comparisons to schemes befitting Dr. Evil

"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," the document reads. 

In an interview, Rayner told me that the document was inspired in part by a failure of a previous foray into climate engineering experimentation, the first attempt by the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project to explore aerosol delivery into the stratosphere.

That undertaking would have floated a blimp a kilometer into the sky to spray 40 gallons of water into the atmosphere, in an attempt to illustrate the machinery that could be used to deliver aerosol particles into the stratosphere.

Graphic: SPICE

The impact of the experiment would have been negligible on the climate, but, according to Rayner and the Guardian, it caused a public backlash, and was eventually cancelled for unrelated reasons. Rayner says scientists interested in studying geoengineering need to learn from the debacle, and to make sure future experiments are carefully and responsibly vetted, both scientifically and publicly.

"We need to be very careful in these initial steps," he told me, in order to create "a pragmatic pathway" to climate engineering experiments. He notes that the vast majority of the geoengineering experiments currently under consideration are so small in scale they "couldn't conceivably have any effect on the atmosphere," but that scientists need to consider the "social and political consequences." He said that he and his colleagues did harbor concerns that they were making things "thinkable that ought to be unthinkable" but that with or without a framework, scientists were going to experiment with climate engineering, and it was best to do so in a measured way that kept the public informed.

Dr. Ken Caldeira, a prominent American atmospheric scientist also attending the conference, worries that such a document will ultimately prove stifling to climate science. It's too broadly defined, he says, and could end up preventing research that's only tangentially related to geoengineering, if future regulators object to it.

"There's a real possibility that this governance, or regulations, could hurt climate science," he said. Regulators could, for instance, not consider carbon sequestration (the act of pumping pollution underground) to be geoengineering, but decide that painting roofs white (another, less controversial geoengineering proposal) is.

"How do you define 'experimental work on such techniques'?" Caldeira told me, referring to a line in the text that appears to be vague. "I think it will end up doing more harm than good." 

The proposal has already caused heated debate amongst the scientists and commentators in Berlin, and whether it is accepted and published remains to be seen. But Rayner believes that, at least as a subject for discussion and experimentation, geoengineering is here to stay.

"A decade ago, 'nanotechnology' was a word that was on everybody's lips," he said in a panel discussion. Now we mostly talk about the specific applications of nanotech, because it's become so commonplace. Rayner believes the same will happen with geoengineering—it will become normalized. "My prediction is that the word 'geoengineering' will fall out of use, and be replaced by discussion of more specific technologies."

Update: This article formerly stated that the Royal Society of London was behind the proposal; it is fact written by an affiliated scientist, but has not yet formally been endorsed or recognized by the organization. Motherboard regrets the error.