SCIENCE:

A search for rules before climate-changing experiments begin

Responding to renewed interest in geoengineering schemes to combat global warming, scientists and policymakers are beginning several efforts that could set new ground rules for research, including large-scale field experiments.

Last week, a committee in Britain's House of Commons began an inquiry to determine whether developing and deploying geoengineering methods will require new British or international regulations. The U.K. panel is cooperating with an American counterpart, the House Science and Technology Committee, which which is planning its own hearings this year on scientific, engineering, ethical, economic and governance aspects of the emerging field.

Meanwhile, a group of scientists will meet in California this spring to attempt to set guidelines for large-scale field tests of proposed geoengineering techniques, which range from employing artificial trees to suck carbon dioxide from the air to spewing massive amounts of sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight.

Sponsored by the newly created Climate Response Fund, the conference is being modeled on a landmark 1973 meeting, the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, that set ground rules for biotechnology research.

"Geoengineering keeps getting discussed as something we might do, but there's been virtually no research on it, so it isn't clear whether it's a real promise or an empty promise," said Michael MacCracken, chief scientist at the Climate Institute and the organizer of the upcoming meeting's scientific program.

"The idea for conference is, let's get some plausible ideas and proposals out there and think about what the implications are and how you'd be able to evaluate them," he said. "How might they work? How would you test them? What side effects would they have?"

MacCracken said he hopes to have up to 150 scientists from around the world attend the March event, which will take place at the Asilomar conference center in Monterey, Calif.

A meeting to ponder 'Plan B' for the planet

"The example we're patterning this after is the recombinant DNA meeting that we held at Asilomar in the 1970s," he said. "That was a technology that was identified with a lot of potential advantages that people could see, but it also had a lot of potential downsides they worried about. The first step in thinking about it was that scientists got together and thought about the things they could do to make research as safe as possible."

MacCracken also addressed concerns expressed by some scientists about the meeting's sponsor, the Climate Response Fund. The fund is run by former National Science Foundation official Margaret Leinen, whose son, Dan Whaley, heads Climos, a firm that was begun to sell carbon credits produced by fertilizing the ocean with iron. Although Leinen once served as Climos' chief science officer, she told Science magazine last fall that she no longer has "a position, stock or a share of any intellectual property in Climos."

For his part, MacCracken said he is developing the scientific program for the Asilomar meeting without input from the Climate Response Fund.

Many scientists say geoengineering approaches could prove a valuable "Plan B" for the planet in case sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions fail to stave off dangerous warming. But that won't be clear without more research into geoengineering's potential benefits and drawbacks, one expert told members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee last week.

"The state of knowledge about geoengineering, from the technical side, but also the political, ethical and regulatory sides, is simply not at a point where any sensible person could recommend we implement a geoengineering technique at this point," said John Virgoe, an expert in geoengineering governance.

Virgoe said scientists and policymakers should begin researching geoengineering approaches now, so that "if we get to the point where we want to go ahead with these sorts of acts ... we're in a position to take a mature, measured, informed decision."

Potential for international mistrust

That's in line with positions taken by the American Meteorological Society, the U.K. Royal Society and the American Geophysical Union, which have issued cautious calls for more research -- though they have warned that geoengineering approaches shouldn't supplant efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But experts who addressed the House of Commons committee last week said how and when to regulate geoengineering research and deployment is still an open question.

Jason Blackstock, a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, said that one major category of geoengineering approaches -- those that seek to deflect sunlight -- will likely require new environmental treaties and laws.

That's because such techniques -- which include proposals to shoot sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere, creating a cooling haze that mimics the effects of a volcanic eruption, and a similar plan to use thousands of special ships to spew sea salt into the sky, encouraging the formation of clouds -- could quickly affect large geographic areas.

"Even when you start talking about field-testing [these techniques], you start running into the potential for transboundary impacts," he said, "or at least the perception of transboundary impacts, and so the potential for international mistrust ... will come up fairly quickly."

But David Keith, a climate scientist at the University of Calgary, said that experts don't necessarily have the information right now to develop new international regulations that might be needed.

"It would be premature to start a full [U.N.]-scale, leading-towards-a-treaty process," he said. "I think the crucial thing now is to start thinking about how to do this from the bottom up, through setting up and managing a research program in an international and transparent way."