Geoengineering -- deliberate, planetary-scale efforts to counter the impact of climate change -- is so controversial that a high-powered 18-member Washington task force that spent almost two years studying the idea couldn't decide what to call it.
Most want to rename it "climate remediation." A few want to stick with geoengineering. But all agreed that, whatever you call it, the U.S. government should begin "a coordinated federal research program to explore the potential effectiveness, feasibility, and consequences of climate remediation technologies."
In a 33-page report released today in Washington, the task force of the Bipartisan Policy Center emphasized that climate remediation is not a substitute for managing the risks of climate change through mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, most of them generated by burning fossil fuels). It also says that no geoengineering technology is ready for deployment.
But, the group said, it's imperative that governments, scientists and engineers learn more about geoengineering because the risks of climate change are increasing.
Mitigation measures currently being considered, regardless of their pace of efficacy, will not be able to return atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels for centuries…
Although we do not know exactly how much the climate will change or how fast, globally disruptive or even catastrophic results are possible…Global climate change could unfold in ways that would be very difficult to manage
In plain language: what we're doing (or not doing) now to deal with climate change isn't working, and the consequences of those failures are likely to be disastrous.
"I'm not sure we would have had a consensus recommendation on research if mitigation efforts were going great guns," said Stephen Rademaker, co-chair of the task force and a former assistant secretary of state during the Bush II administration.
Indeed, the report points to a number of climate impacts -- threats to food supply, threats to water supply, lost of Arctic ice which could accelerate the rise in global temperatures or the massive releases of CO2 and methane from the Arctic -- that, if they occur, would create the kind of global emergency that, without warning, could put the idea of geoengineering front and center.
"We're being driven by a fear of climate change that is real and palpable," said Jane Long, a climate and energy expert from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and co-chair of the panel.
"We don't know when the climate may tip," said Richard Elliot Benedick, a former ambassador and chief U.S. negotiator for the 1987 Montreal protocol to protect the ozone layer. "Nature does not give us an early warning system."
Other members of the BPC task force included natural scientists, social scientists, policy experts, environmentalists (Steve Hamburg of Environmental Defense Fund and David Goldston of NRDC) as well several leading researchers into geoengineering (David Keith of Harvard and the University of Calgary, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution at Stanford and Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon).
As regular readers of this blog know, I'm fascinated by geoengineering. [See Suck It Up: an unorthodox climate solution and Is Geoengineering Ready for Prime Time?] I've got a story coming out soon in Fortune on technologies to capture CO2 from the air, and I'm writing a short e-book on the topic as well.