Geoengineering: welcome to a brave new world

With climate change now belatedly in the political spotlight, we need to focus on a new factor which dramatically raises the stakes.

Geoengineering – deliberate, very large-scale human intervention in the global climate system – will change the whole debate about climate change.

Geoengineering – deliberate, very large-scale human intervention in the global climate system – will change the whole debate about climate change.

Climate change is now – finally – the dominant political issue it should always have been in this country. I believe it will be a determining factor in next year’s general elections.

Australia Institute exit polling found that failure to act on emissions was the clear leader among the many triggers for the collapse of the Liberal vote in Wentworth on Saturday. That trend will only be enhanced by a new element in the climate debate that raises the stakes several notches.

Our guide to apocalypse used to be the Book of Revelations. Now we get it from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the peak science body which says that barring a herculean global effort to stabilise atmospheric carbon levels our goose is cooked – literally.

Carbon emissions from human activities have caused greenhouse warming and are rightly at the forefront of the global debate. But the IPCC calculates that reducing emissions will not in itself prevent dangerous climate change. We must do more.

The new element in the climate debate is deliberate, very large-scale human intervention in the global climate system, or geoengineering – a word we’re going to hear a lot in coming years.

It wasn’t so long ago that many of us, myself included, regarded such thinking as bordering on lunacy. Even now, it’s hard not to think that way.

Broadly, geoengineering involves either removing the most abundant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide removal, or CDR) or managing sunlight in some way so that less of it reaches Earth’s surface (solar radiation management, or SRM).

Methods for CDR range from well-understood land practices including tree-planting and bio-energy through to less familiar schemes to capture and store emitted carbon, remove carbon dioxide from ambient air or add nutrients to the ocean to increase its capacity to take up carbon dioxide.

SRM could be done on Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere or on the edge of space. Surface methods might include protecting existing sea or land ice, using reflective or light-coloured roofing materials, growing light-coloured crops or increasing the ocean’s ability to reflect sunlight.

Or we could use specially-equipped ships to send a fine spray of sea-water into the sky to increase clouds’ ability to reflect sunlight. Other options might be to blast reflective particles into the upper atmosphere, or install huge mirrors in Earth-orbit.

Some CDR methods seem plausible, even desirable. SRM remains for me somewhere on the outer fringe of reality, or beyond. We need to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.

For this we need a high global commitment to long-term research and development in climate science, engineering, law, economics and ethics, and a sustained high level of political stability and respect for international institutions, all of which have been notably lacking in recent times.

The most troubling aspect of geoengineering is its ethical implications. It doesn’t sit well with the idea of humanity in harmony with nature. Measures to deflect sunlight from the surface carry many implications, not least international disputation over how they are to be managed. As the IPCC has said, discontinuing any such measure would lead to a rapid warming that would likely be much worse than what it sought to fix.

I have in the past thought of geoengineering as no more than science fiction, resulting from an over-reliance on technology with more than a hint of testosterone. But I can’t ignore the IPCC’s conclusion that a drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide must be part of our armoury.

Given its worrying implications – not least it economic cost – it may be that geoengineering’s best contribution will turn out to be driving deep and dramatic cuts in global emissions, in which at long last Australia will turn out to be a leading nation. I live with that hope.

Clearly it is something we should all try to get our heads around, sooner rather than later. The University of Tasmania has recognised this need by setting up the Australian Forum for Climate Intervention Governance, aiming to be a Southern Hemisphere leader in this field.

Bringing together expertise in environmental and climate law and ethics, marine governance, environmental humanities and marine and Antarctic science, AFCIG aims to be a focal point for national and international research on legal and governance issues around climate intervention.

At a public forum on the university’s Sandy Bay campus tonight, Tasmanians will be able to hear from legal and other experts and have their say on the many issues around geoengineering.

The panel includes ethicist Clare Heyward of the Arctic University in Tromsø, Norway, Phil Williamson of the University of East Anglia (UK), and Hobart-based legal and scientific specialists Jeff McGee, Kerryn Brent, Phil Boyd and Andrew Lenton. It is at the Centenary Theatre, Grosvenor Street extension, and starts at 5.30 pm.

Geoengineering has implications for all of us, which I find deeply troubling. It cries out for public involvement. If you haven’t been part of the climate debate, now is the time to get on board.

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