The SPICE project will investigate the feasibility of one so-called geoengineering technique: the idea of simulating natural processes that release small particles into the stratosphere, which then reflect a few percent of incoming solar radiation, with the effect of cooling the Earth with relative speed. Image credit: Hughhunt via Creative Commons license.
Geoengineering rhetoric has made its way into the headlines this week, on both sides of the pond. The Bipartisan Policy Center issued a report on October 4th entitled “Task Force on Climate Remediation Research.” The title itself demonstrates a major shift in the geoengineering conversation with their advised use of the term “climate remediation.” The task force said it avoided the word “geoengineering” in the entire report due to the word’s breadth and imprecision. (Strangely, though, the term geoengineering is included in the report’s subtitle, which appears as a footer of every page of the report. A quick search of the document therefore yields 51 hits for “geoengineering”). Such a euphemistic term, though, met opposition even among the 18 members of the BPC’s task force. The names of three of the report’s authors—David Keith, Granger Morgan, and David G. Victor—were accompanied by the following footnote: “These members support the recommendations of this report, but they do not support the introduction of the new term “climate remediation.” This hearkened back to Roger’s earlier blog regarding the terminology debate surrounding climate deniers/skeptics/inactivists.
The task force’s definition of “climate remediation” provides a much more positive and politically correct spin than some: “intentional actions taken to counter the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.” Translation: We screwed up and it’s about time we start thinking about cleaning up the mess.
The result was a reluctantly pro-geoengineering report from the BPC. The authors said research is an unfortunate necessity at this point, and emphasized that such practices would not act as a substitute for climate mitigation or adaptation. Yet most mainstream media coverage of the report communicated an air of enthusiasm from the BPC, as was the case with the New York Times, whose headline read, “Group Urges Research Into Aggressive Efforts to Fight Climate Change.”
John Vidal, writing for the Guardian’s Environment Blog Thursday, was not particularly supportive of the report’s recommendations, though. His major beef? The agenda-driven affiliations of the task force’s members. He brought up a number of the factors in his blog that we had discussed during our in-class activity regarding the formation of a panel of experts: gender and political party, —“For a start these guys - and they are indeed mostly men - are not bipartisan in any sense that the British would understand”—funding sources, —“The operation is part-funded by big oil, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies” and vested interests—“the cream of the emerging science and military-led geoengineering lobby with a few neutrals chucked in to give it an air of political sobriety.”
Vidal instead applauded the UK’s hesitation when it put off a previously scheduled geoengineering experiment last week. The project boasts a particularly awkward acronym, SPICE, which stands for the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project, and is funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with support from the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Vidal described the SPICE project in an earlier blog as “a tethered balloon the size of Wembley stadium suspended 20km above Earth, linked to the ground by a giant garden hose pumping hundreds of tonnes of minute chemical particles a day into the thin stratospheric air to reflect sunlight and cool the planet.” Just prior to the project’s intended start date, though, the team announced it would “delay the experiment planned in October, to allow time for more engagement with stakeholders.”
So the United Kingdom is putting on the geoengineering brakes while the United States is revving its engine. With the global reach of the problem, though, and the necessity of a comparable scale for proposed solutions, where does that leave the geoengineering/climate remediation conversation? If we can't even agree on the vocabulary, how are we supposed to discuss solutions?