A new study finds that the majority of people in America, Canada and Britain approve of more research in the nascent field of climate manipulation known as geoengineering.

A full 72 percent of participants in the survey, published in Environmental Research Letters, said they "supported" or "somewhat supported" the study of solar radiation management (SRM). The technique seeks to inject sulfur into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and offset the warming caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"I think that level of support was higher than my co-authors and I were expecting," said Ashley Mercer, lead author and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Calgary in Alberta. Mercer said she became interested in SRM because of the ethical implications of the climate-manipulating practice and a lack of documented public input on the matter.

The Internet-based poll of 3,105 people from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States is the first international analysis on the public perception of geoengineering and SRM.

It revealed what Mercer described as a surprisingly high level of public awareness about geoengineering techniques. More than half of respondents either correctly defined the technique or the similar term "climate engineering."

"Researchers and policymakers can no longer assume that the public is unaware of geoengineering. As this research shows, awareness is larger than expected and likely growing. Engaging with the broader public is important to help improve any future decisionmaking about SRM because these decisions involve many different values and risk trade-offs," she said.

The survey data showed that the potential risks of SRM and unknown damage to the ozone layer were important drivers of public perception. Mercer admitted it was surprising that there was such widespread support for climate manipulation through SRM, which is a relatively new and possibly risky field.

Ideology not a predictor of geoengineering support
Indeed, the survey comes at a key time in the United Kingdom, where concerns over the social aspects of geoengineering have delayed the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project. SPICE, which was set to run a test project this month, aims to reduce the amount of incoming solar radiation by injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere from a balloon half a mile in the air.

Mercer said the broad support of SRM could reveal a limitation of the survey, which did not ask participants to describe which aspects of geoengineering research they supported. For instance, some people may support computer modeling but have concerns with something deployed in the real world. Asking more detailed questions may be the focus of future research, she said.

But what Mercer and her co-authors could determine was that among the minority who did not support SRM, the largest predictor was the value that "we should not be manipulating the Earth in this way," and not necessarily a political leaning.

"Some reports have suggested that opposition to geoengineering is associated with environmentalists, but our results do not support this view," said co-author professor David Keith of Harvard University in a statement. "We found that geoengineering divides people along unusual lines. Support for geoengineering is spread across the political spectrum."

The survey showed that a number of people who identify as environmentalists do not support SRM, said Mercer. Seeing human-influenced climate change as a significant issue was not an apparent predictor of support, she added. Meanwhile, a number of self-identified conservatives do support the practice.

But the opposite also proved to be true, "where you would expect environmentalists don't think enough is being done to address climate change so they may support SRM, and where conservatives are unsupportive because they don't want the government to be involved," said Mercer.

While politics did not predict whether someone would oppose SRM, the strongest opposition to geoengineering practices came from those who identify as politically conservative. That's because they are "distrustful of government and other elite institutions, and ... doubt the very idea that there is a climate problem," said Keith.

The data shows that the debate over geoengineering breaks down in many ways, but to be more specific, more research is necessary, said Mercer. "I think this is the first in a line of many studies that will show that SRM intersects with people's political and environmental attitudes in surprising ways."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500