How do you govern something that doesn't exist yet?
That, in a broad sense, is the question facing scientists and governments who are interested in exploring geoengineering's potential to fight climate change but wary of the risk of stirring controversy and conflict.
A new effort to provide U.S. government guidance on research restrictions that might be necessary will be launched tomorrow by the Washington-based National Commission on Energy Policy, which has assembled a task force of experts in science, national security and diplomacy to tackle tough questions surrounding geoengineering.
"We're trying to broaden the discussion," said Sasha Mackler, NCEP's research director. "We have people in our group that have done work in other disciplines, and we're looking at analogous models and what we've done in other areas like nuclear weapons, like nanotechnology, like biotech and biomedical research -- areas where technologies were out in front of what we knew socially."
The 19-member task force, which met for the first time last month, hopes to have in hand by summer's end recommendations to guide Congress and the federal government's first steps to establish geoengineering research and governance schemes.
"If we get out in front of this and start doing this responsibly, and bringing people to create best practices that lead to some formal governance, that leaves scientists the space to do their job well," Mackler said.
Next week, a group of scientists meeting in Monterey, Calif., will try to establish rules for field tests and other research. 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.
One oft-mentioned approach to engineering the climate is to mimic the cooling effects of a volcano by spraying sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere, where they would increase the amount of sunlight reflected away from Earth. There's already a natural proof of concept: The 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption spewed 10 million tons of sulfur into the atmosphere and cooled the Earth roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit for about a year.
Could a rich man's experiment trigger an ice age?
And in geoengineering terms, where almost any proposal involves deploying technology on a planetary scale, initial calculations suggest the sulfate approach would be relatively cheap and easy. But those advantages can also seem like problems, according to some researchers.
"The low price tag is very attractive, but it raises the risk of unilateral action," University of Calgary physicist David Keith told a House committee last month. "The cost is so little that the richest people on the planet could afford to buy an ice age."
That's a daunting prospect even without considering that the Pinatubo eruption depleted the Earth's ozone layer and temporarily altered Asia's monsoon, inducing drought.
And some researchers, including Rutgers University's Alan Robock, have suggested that fully testing sulfate geoengineering would require field tests so large they would be the equivalent of full-scale deployment. Anything smaller could make it too hard to separate the signal from the noise.
Facing such a complex stew of uncertainty and potential, policymakers and scientists are beginning to discuss setting ground rules for geoengineering research and, potentially, eventual deployment.
"At some point, the world will insist on having a global stake in this, almost certainly," John Steinbruner, director of the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies, said last week at an event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.
"You're dealing with a global commons. ... Because you can imagine having very substantial global effects on the basis of a very small global initiative, you need to anticipate the need for rules that don't exist yet."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500