What will happen when geoengineering comes to Washington?

What's to come?
Sept. 24 2010 10:13 AM

The Politics of Climate Control

What will happen when geoengineering comes to Washington?

(Continued from Page 1)

A relatively new meme in the climate wars will make the case for federal planet-hacking research even tougher. In April, Sarah Palin called climate science "snake-oil science stuff that is based on this global warming, Gore-gate stuff." The Climategate controversy led Bret Stephens to write in the Wall Street Journal that climate researchers are a "vested interest" whose biases "are an enemy of sound science." That line of attack will make it hard for scientists to argue for money to study a new and potentially dangerous approach to controlling climate change. So will House Republicans' avowed commitment to cutting government spending. (Technocrats altering the planetary thermostat is about as big as government can get.)

Meanwhile, liberals are in an awkward spot when it comes to proposing a federal geoengineering research program. From John Holdren, the president's science adviser, to Steve Koonin, a top official at the Department of Energy, the administration has in place powerful advocates who believe that such a program is necessary. But after an interview in which Holdren said geoengineering had been discussed in the White House, the AP published a story that said Obama's "Global Warming Plan Involves Cooling Air" and Holdren reacted with fury. Subsequently, other government officials have kept quiet on the topic.

Having failed to curb global and U.S. emissions, climate advocates now worry that talking about geoengineering as a palliative would embolden those who want to frame geoengineering as a viable alternative to cutting back on fossil fuels. There's also the fear that without controls on U.S. emissions in place, a federal geoengineering program would signal to the world that we're looking to engineer our way out of the climate conundrum instead of addressing the root problem. Mainstream green groups have either remained neutral on the issue or, like the Environmental Defense Fund, quietly supported research. But a new effort launched by an international group of left-wing groups called Hands Off Mother Earth has called for a global moratorium on geoengineering tests; it will no doubt gain U.S. allies if the debate comes to D.C.

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So the current state of ambivalence on geoengineering research in Washington is likely to persist for a while. But if the federal government avoids the subject, there's nothing stopping private firms or individuals from getting involved on their own terms. In fact, Bill Gates has already given a few million dollars to some relevant academics, while Richard Branson has expressed his own enthusiasm for the field and Nathan Myhrvold has convened geoengineering brainstorming sessions. * Most scientists would prefer to receive their support from the government, on the grounds that if there were ever a new technology that demands public oversight, this would be it. The intersection of private companies and geoengineering has already led to controversy over corporate conflict of interest (regarding the sponsor of a geoengineering conference in March) and questions about whether it's appropriate for Myhrvold or others to hold patents on climate-altering technologies.

Opponents and supporters of greenhouse-gas limits may each have their reasons to avoid supporting the kind of geoengineering studies that researchers say is required now. But if anything, that's just a new variation on an old tune. Scientists have been calling for limits on greenhouse-gas pollution for more than a decade, and neither party has managed to make it happen. If Washington has been unwilling to confront our addiction to fossil fuels, it's not surprising that lawmakers aren't yet ready to explore the feasibility of planetary methadone.

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Correction, Oct. 1, 2010: This article originally misspelled Nathan Myhrvold's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Science reporter Eli Kintisch's book, Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope—or Worst Nightmare—for Averting Climate Catastrophe, was published in April.