Spending a week on the beautiful North California coastline with a bunch of interesting people talking about a fascinating topic is obviously a chore, but I girded my loins and took the plunge. The Asilomar meeting on the regulation of geoengineering research was intended to echo the Asilomar meeting of 1975, which set out procedures for moving beyond the moratorium on genetic engineering experiments that had been set up the year before. Alexis Madrigal looked at the historical precedent in some detail. Not an exact parallel, as pointed out by various people at the meeting, whose views were taken on board by The Economist
There are, however, important differences between the subjects. One is that in the 1970s it was clear that the ability to move genes between creatures was going to bring about a huge change in the practice of science itself, and biologists were eager for that to happen. Modern climate scientists, by contrast, usually see geoengineering research as niche, if not fringe, stuff. Many wish it would go away completely. Another difference is that in the 1970s there was a worry that DNA experiments could in themselves present dangers. With geoengineering the dangers are more likely to be caused by large-scale deployment than by any individual scientific experiment.
There was no consensus at the end of the meeting, but there was a statement by the steering committee. The Economist concludes
The participants … generally endorsed a set of five overarching principles for the regulation of the field that were presented recently to the British Parliament by Steve Rayner, a professor at the Saïd Business School, in Oxford.
The “Oxford principles”, as they are known, hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.
The conference’s organising committee is now working on a further statement of principles, to be released later. Meanwhile Britain’s main scientific academy, the Royal Society, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, which has members from around 90 countries, are planning further discussions that will culminate at a meeting to be held this November.
Producing plausible policies and ways for the public to have a say on them will be hard—harder, perhaps, than the practical problem of coming up with ways to suck up a bit of carbon or reduce incoming sunshine. As Andrew Mathews, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts it, it is not just a matter of constructing a switch, it is a matter of constructing a hand you trust to flip it.
Although the climate scientists may have accomplished less in a week than did their biologist forebears, they did make progress. The conference organizers declared that geoengineering research is “indispensable” but said that it should be done with “humility.” Governments and the public should work together to decide what schemes are “viable, appropriate, and ethical,” the statement added. Cuts in greenhouse emissions should be a priority, it said, mirroring statements by the American Geophysical Union and the U.K. Royal Society.
Most conferees believe the possibility of climate tipping points has placed geoengineering on the global agenda. And so last week’s meeting—The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, or Asilomar 2, as it was dubbed—was driven both by fears of climate catastrophes and the potentially dangerous steps that scientists or politicians might take to avert them. It was “a meeting … we all wished was not necessary,” conference organizer Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund in Alexandria, Virginia, told the participants.
Lesson one: Geoengineering is a tabula rasa in the public mind. Like most of the attendees, I was well aware of the fact that geoengineering is an unfamiliar idea to many people. But I had not seen any actual data on this. Nor had I really grasped the implications of it.
One of the most enlightening presentations of the week was from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, who presented the results of a long-running study on the public perception of global warming. In his most recent survey, he had thrown in a few questions about geoengineering. When asked, “How much, if anything, have you heard about geoengineering as a possible response to climate change,” 74 percent of respondents said “nothing.” The 26 percent that had heard about geoengineering turned out to be wildly misinformed — more than half thought it referred to geothermal energy. Only 3 percent of the people who had heard about geoengineering were correctly informed about it. “The public basically knows nothing about this,” Leiserowitz told the attendees. “That is both a great challenge, and a great opportunity.”
The other 4 lessons are: Nobody has any clear idea how to resolve the inequalities inherent in geoengineering; People will be talking about banning field experiments; It’s all about the money; and trust is everything.
“Be very careful.” The warning, from Robert Socolow, a climate researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey, came at the end of a meeting last week that aimed to thrash out guidelines for the nascent field of geoengineering. The discipline aims to use global-scale efforts to control the climate and mitigate the worst effects of anthropogenic warming — but the techniques used could also have far-reaching, unintended consequences.
Jeff also gets the best of many quotes from David Keith (“People aren’t discussing apples and oranges, they are talking about apples and oranges and Porsches and whales and moons”) that enliven much of the coverage. (Pablo Suarez probably runs him a close second for most quoted non-organiser)
Jim Giles at New Scientist takes in more of the science than most accounts, neatly highlighting some new wrinkles, before ending up with the opposition to the ideas (which was aired in the local paper, among other places):
A lack of consultation could fuel campaigns against geoengineering similar to those that have derailed the use of genetically modified crops in Europe, Shobita Parthasarathy warns. Such protests seem to be taking off already. While delegates were talking in Asilomar, a body of over 70 environmental, health and social groups published an open letter attacking the meeting. “Such a discussion cannot happen without the participation of the full membership of the United Nations,” it reads. “Determining guidelines for geoengineering research and testing in the absence of that debate is premature and irresponsible.”
Also worth mentioning: the California poppies, which I fell for the first time I visited the site, and still find entrancing.
Images by me: licensed under creative commons
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