For geoengineers, a scientific existential crisis

This story
was originally published by Undark and is reproduced here as part of
the Climate Desk
collaboration.

In mid-December, more than 28,000 people met in Washington,
D.C., to discuss everything earth science-related at the American
Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. But amid the dry data and
scientific acronyms at a session
on solar geoengineering, the science had a patina of existentialist
dread that you might not see in a similar forum. There were
questions of public disclosure, talk of slippery slopes, and an
inescapable nervousness, as if maybe this subject was only barely
sitting on the respectable side of science.

It isn’t hard to understand why. Geoengineering refers to a
controversial set of proposals centered around one basic idea: to
use technology to help cool down a rapidly warming planet. The most
prominent scheme is solar radiation management (SRM), whereby
sunlight is reflected back into space to reduce global warming.
Such a feat may be attempted through a variety of techniques
including stratospheric aerosol injection, which acts much like a
volcano 
does naturally by dumping
tons of tiny sulfur particles 60,000 feet in the sky.

This is not, generally speaking, a popular idea. “SRM is only
being considered because the world is broken,” says Simon
Nicholson
, director of American University’s Global
Environmental Politics Program, who works on the politics and
governance of geoengineering. The approach is a measure of last
resort, a stopgap that might stave off some of the worst effects of
warming in the face of plodding progress toward reducing carbon
emissions. SRM also has plenty of potential downsides — such as
regional changes to weather
patterns
and related effects on crop
yields
— and it would do nothing to address climate-adjacent
issues like ocean acidification.

Though it remains divisive, solar geoengineering has started to
gain traction both in climate science and with the broader public,
thanks to the increasing direness of climate change. Still, most
geoengineering researchers agree that reducing carbon dioxide
emissions is by far the highest priority. If humanity somehow
managed to switch off the CO2 spigot tomorrow, though,
geoengineers’ field could disappear. The point of geoengineering
today is to slow down climate change, and if we could do that
through less controversial means, there might not be a need to
study the concept at all.

So the geoengineers find themselves in the somewhat odd position
of working in a field that they wish did not exist. What
is that like?

Across the field, the reactions to this existential crisis are
mixed. “SRM is peculiar, in the sense that most of those who
study it do so with some amount of reluctance or ambivalence,”
Nicholson says. Researchers studying geoengineering generally
acknowledge the subject matter is “unpalatable,” he adds, which
leads to an uncommon degree of self-reflection and caution.

This cautious approach is partially informed by sharp criticism
from those who think that even studying SRM gives tacit permission
to ignore the imperative of emissions reductions; there are plenty
of angry responses from the public,
as well as from climate scientists
and those in other
fields
. But many geoengineering experts think this criticism is
short-sighted. “Wishing it weren’t so won’t make it go
away,” says Joshua
Horton
, a research director of geoengineering at Harvard
University. “The world is full of things we wish didn’t exist
but ignore at our peril. Climate change is one of those things, and
so is solar geoengineering — ignoring the former will lead to
catastrophe, but ignoring the latter is also likely to lead to
unnecessary pain and suffering.”

While some scientists may still wish geoengineering was a fringe
idea, there is no doubt that it is heading toward the mainstream.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC), which assesses and synthesizes the scientific research on
climate change, as well as potential impacts and mitigation
strategies, has increasingly included discussion of geoengineering
in its publications. The IPCC’s most recent special climate report
featured big
chunks of a chapter
on the topic, though it explicitly
refrained from using the term geoengineering itself and separated
SRM from carbon dioxide removal, which is much less controversial.
One of the conveners of the AGU session, David Keith, a
professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard and among
field’s most prominent academics, missed the D.C. meeting because
he was in Poland, where he participated in a panel session on
geoengineering at the United
Nations climate meeting
.

Some geoengineers have noticed the shift in perspective in their
daily work. “The first time I ever mentioned that I was going to
work on geoengineering, it was basically the end of my talk and I
got yelled off the stage,” says Douglas
MacMartin
, an engineer and climate scientist at Cornell
University. Today, he adds, no one he interacts with — other
scientists or the general public — says the research is a bad
idea.

Still others think of their work in terms of risk management.
“If you know there’s some chance of catastrophic risk, then you
need to know if you have options or not,” says Holly Buck, a
postdoctoral fellow at UCLA who works on the socio-political side
of geoengineering. Buck thinks the anger over the need for the
field is “a completely appropriate response,” but
geoengineering researchers are not the right target. “People
should be livid that elites and governments are presiding over a
slow-motion apocalypse,” she says, “and have let global warming
get to a point where some careful geoengineering research is
warranted.”

MacMartin agrees, and compares geoengineering to putting an
airbag in a car. “Yes we should take the foot off the gas, yes we
should put the foot on the brakes,” he says, “but if you’re
going to have an accident, we’d really actually like to reduce
the impacts. We’d like to understand whether that’s
possible.”

Despite some
claims
to the contrary, there have so far been almost
no
physical geoengineering experiments — it’s essentially
all computer modeling. At the AGU meeting, though, one of the
themes was exactly where to go next. Some experts, such
as Ken
Caldeira
, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for
Science in California, think the modeling has more or less run its
course; others, including MacMartin, think there is plenty more
that the computers have to offer, and that “we don’t know what
experiments we need to do.” (One small but prominent outdoor
experiment, dubbed SCoPEx,
is planned, though it awaits the establishment of an external
advisory board before it receives full approval.)

There was a hint of defensiveness in the room as well, a sense
that they’re only studying this because the world has forced it
upon them. Presenters mentioned the dramatic effects of unchecked
climate change, and how the uncertain negative effects of SRM
likely pale in comparison to the alternative.

But mostly, these scientists appear to like going to work every
day, even though their chosen field is, to put it gently, a bit
noisy. Nicholson calls the field “complex and intellectually
enlivening,” and MacMartin enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of
the work — you can’t separate the science from the
sociopolitical angles, and that makes for a stimulating
environment.

That’s not to say that there aren’t still discouragements
along the way. Some research has suggested that actually
explaining SRM
to the public causes support for it to drop, so
it remains an open question whether the brighter spotlight on the
field will improve its reputation. Jadwiga Richter, a
geoengineering scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric
Research in Colorado, says while most of her colleagues support her
research, she still sometimes gets a sense of disapproval from
other scientists. “There are definitely people who, you walk down
a hall, and they’re shaking their head,” she says. They feel
that “this is not what you should be doing.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
For geoengineers, a scientific existential crisis
on Jan 27,
2019.

Source: FS – All – Science – News
For geoengineers, a scientific existential crisis