Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Geoengineering madness! (And I do mean madness...)

Geoengineering makes me think of two scenarios: arch-villain plots (now I will block out the sun...muwhahaha!!) and well-meaning scientists too focused on finding a solution to the world's problems to recognize their own hubris.

Well, yesterday's panel on geoengineering -- sponsored by the University of Colorado's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and populated with local rockstars Bill Travis, Lisa Dilling, Max Boykoff, Rachel Hauser, Ben Hale, and Roger Pielke, Jr. -- gave me a new image: academics grappling with the sticky issue of semantics as a proxy for grappling with the even stickier issue of geoengineering itself.

The technology for geoengineering -- or the less scary earth systems engineering or climate intervention -- is still in its infancy. And, as you'd expect, the policy approaches to how we might deal with it are even less developed.That made for a really great panel, as the audience got to see the panelists views shape and evolve as they responded to questions. I'll give a quick and dirty rundown of the panelists' main points (later!), but first...

Observing this event made me think about all the ways I could possibly write about this. And that in turn led me on a a trip through my educational history (seriously, you can jump to the end for the bullet points if you want).

In my OES days of excessive liberal arts thinking...
Hmm, but what are the main assumptions the panelists are making here?
  1. Global warming is actually occurring
  2. Science and technology and empiricism are sound methods for uncovering knowledge
  3. We are all sitting in this room at this moment, listening to this talk
What happens if I undermine those assumptions? Why are we even talking about geoengineering when we have no proof that anything exists outside of our own minds? Ahhhhhhhhhhh! I'm going to the desert to have a spiritual journey.

In my MIT days of engineering overload...
How can we accurately characterize the views of the panelists to the nearest order of magnitude? I think four out of the six panelists are against global warming, so that's basically the same as saying that they all agree geoengineering is a bad idea. If that's the case, why are they still talking?

In my senior year of college, when I was taking my nature writing class really seriously...
But what does the discourse on geoengineering tell us about the human condition? Maybe I'll go find a stream, build a tiny dam, observe what happens, then come back and stare at a blank wall and write about it.

In my days as a high school teacher...There has to be a teaching moment in here...but what is it? I know! I could use geoengineering to teach my seniors about the laws of thermodynamics. And then we could watch a movie. Maybe The Core.

In my first year as a journalism student...
But what's the most important nugget of information? Before technologists and policy experts can tackle geoengineering, they first have to decide what it is. No, too boring. CU policy experts pan geoengineering? No, too simplified. Lisa Dilling had a good quote about a volcano that I can probably use...

In my second year as a journalism student, riddled with disillusionment, looking to comics for storytelling inspiration (I've been reading a lot of Scott McCloud and Will Eisner lately, which has been enlightening, but hasn't improved my skills at cartooning or humor)...

But none of those is quite right. Instead, I'll just barf some of my notes onto you. Enjoy!

Lisa Dilling:

  • She attended last week's Asilomar Conference on geoengineering, where the conference organizers kept trying to draw parallels between geoengineering today and recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s. Dilling wasn't buying the comparison.
  • At the conference, she listened to lost of debates that distinguished geoengineering research from geoengineering deployment. Dilling wasn't buying that either: you can't have research without discussing its applications.
  • No one knows what to call geoengineering, and what to include under its umbrella. Does planting trees count?
Max Boykoff:
  • He also attended the Asilomar Conference, and was also bothered by the historical comparisons with recombinant DNA.
  • Boykoff was concerned about the representation at the conference -- it was conspicuously lacking members of the "global south."
  • He felt, "at times we were bordering on some delusions of grandeur about what can be done."
  • He gave a panel on media representations of geoengineering: basically, there aren't any yet because it's completely missing from public consciousness.
Rachel Hauser:
  • She attended Asilomar, and stayed for a special session on cloud whitening. It sounds so friendly, doesn't it?
  • She observed that engineers and climate scientists have trouble communicating with each other.
  • The "quick" time scales that geoengineering proponents love to flaunt are really on the order of decades.
  • There are no really gung-ho geoengineers out there -- even those with vested interests are wary of the moral and technical issues involved.
Ben Hale (indie environmental philosopher!):
  • He tackled the ethics of remediation, which is in effect turning back the clock on the environmental wrongdoings we've already done.
  • He outlined four criteria for a successful geoengineering project, based on the work of Dale Jamieson of NYU:
    • It has to be technically feasible
    • The consequences must be predictable
    • The outcomes must produce desirable (i.e., better than present) social and economic states
    • It must not seriously violate any ethical standards
  • Well, to date at least, no geoengineering solutions meet all four...
Roger Pielke, Jr.:
  • He starts to feel uneasy whenever a community -- like geoengineers -- start to self-regulat and self-govern. For example, the conference was sponsored by a group who has a stake in a geoengineering start-up. That's a big red flag.
  • He thinks geoengineering is a "slippery term" -- it should include things like solar radiation moderation (i.e., artificially creating the effects of a volcano with particles), but not carbon dioxide removal.
  • He also thinks, "geoengineering is a horribly bad idea." We just aren't good at undertaking large scale experiments on ecosystems. Behold: Australia's introduction of the cane toad.
  • Pielke cited three criteria for when technological fixes (i.e., vaccines, glasses) work, based on work by Daniel Sarewitz:
    • There must be a clear cause and effect relationship between the technological intervention and the desired outcome
    • The consequences must be able to be unambiguously assessed
    • The technological solution must build on a pre-existing technological core
  • Geoegineering fails all three...bing bang boom!
Bill Travis:
  • He wonders why are are framing geoengineering as a purely emergency measure. Maybe it's not?
  • He's also interested in whether the possibility of geoengineering might distract people from other solutions (mitigation, adaptation, social behavior modification, etc.).
  • How do we know what an emergency looks like? Can we see it coming, or only tell once it's here?

For further reading, check out:

[Image from Flickr user flydime shared with a Creative Commons Attribution License]

No comments: