New York Times publicizes bipartisan call for research on climate-disruption countermeasures
Bipartisan Policy Center declares that the time has come to study and consider geoengineering.
October 5, 2011Published: October 5, 2011
By Steven T. Corneliussen
“With political action on curbing greenhouse gases stalled,” begins Cornelia Dean in the 4 October New York Times, “a bipartisan panel of scientists, former government officials and national security experts is recommending that the government begin researching a radical fix: directly manipulating the Earth’s climate to lower the temperature.”
Dean scooped other national newspapers with her story on this new push for geoengineering. But later that same day, a Washington Post blog article) offered an opening that immediately, and bluntly, invoked fears that have often restrained such discussion:
Geoengineering has always been the wacky, mad-scientist climate scheme no one wants to discuss. Sure, the idea sounds simple enough: If the world can’t wean itself off fossil fuels quickly enough, then maybe there’s a way to artificially cool the planet to avoid the worst effects of global warming. But the practical concerns are far from simple. What if there are unforeseen side effects? Who gets to control the sun-blocking technology? It’s no wonder that most experts who fret about climate change would rather just sidestep the topic and focus on Plan A, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions the old-fashioned way.
These news reports introduce a study issued on 4 October by the Bipartisan Policy Center, founded by former Senate majority leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell. The center claims to combine “politically balanced policymaking with strong, proactive advocacy and outreach.”
The center’s press release conveys much in its headline and subheadline: “Blue ribbon task force on climate remediation releases report calling for federal geo-engineering research program: Experts caution greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation measures must take priority; recommend full evaluation of long-term feasibility and consequences; too little known to discuss deployment at this time.”
Dean’s early-arriving Times report notes that study panel members “said they hoped that such extreme engineering techniques, which include scattering particles in the air to mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes or stationing orbiting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight, would never be needed” but that they also said that the time has come to begin researching and testing in case “the climate system reaches a ‘tipping point’ and swift remedial action is required.” The particles and mirrors, she later explains, represent a range of solar radiation management techniques. Carbon dioxide removal constitutes a second basic approach.
She quotes the view of panelist David Keith, from Harvard and the University of Calgary, that the very idea of geoengineering is “fundamentally shocking.” And she adds that it’s “an idea that many environmental groups have rejected as misguided and potentially dangerous.” She also quotes David Goldston, a panel member who served formerly as chief of staff of the House Committee on Science. Dangerous or not, he declares, a “conversation about this is going to go on with us or without us.”
In interviews, panelists said again and again that the continuing focus of policy makers and experts should be on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But several acknowledged that significant action remained a political nonstarter. Last month, for example, the Obama administration told the federal Environmental Protection Agency to hold off on tightening ozone standards, citing complications related to the weak economy.
Dean predicts that “given the panelists’ varied political and professional backgrounds, they seem likely to achieve one major goal: starting a broader conversation on the issue.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are published in "Science and the media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.