15 October 2010

Geoengineering: The Embryonic Stem Cells of the Left

In The Climate Fix, I have a chapter that explains why implementation of geoengineering schemes is a bad idea (with one notable exception).  But I do not object to most research on geoengineering (however, if such research involves large-scale field tests, it may be considered experimental implementation).  But not everyone agrees that geoengineering research should be allowed.

Writing at AAAS ScienceInsider, Eli Kintisch reports that the upcoming international negotiations on the UN Convention on Biodiversity are going to consider a ban on geoengineering, including geoengineering research.  Here is an excerpt from his blog post:
Next week's meeting of the 193-nation Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, will tackle such controversial issues as funding for the Global Environment Facility, hard-to-reach biodiversity targets, and controls on the access of genetic material in plants. If time allows, delegates to the CBD may also debate the first-ever international blanket prohibition on research related to geoengineering, the deliberate tinkering with the climate to reverse global warming.

On page 145 of the 195-page agenda for the conference is the declaration that no:
Climate-related geo-engineering activities [should] take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts.
It's unclear, however, what that prohibition would mean were it to pass. Would it bar computer studies, or simply large-scale deployment of climate-altering schemes after they've been tested? The United Kingdom and the European Union are currently funding a handful of projects involving physical, atmospheric, and social research on sun-blocking techniques using particles in the sky, for example. They're on paper, in the lab, or being simulated on a computer. Would this broadly written bar apply to that work?

Concerned that the language, if passed, could prevent research that prominent scientific institutions say is important, a handful of scientists are trying to table or defeat this language.
The support of some on the political left for a ban geoengineering research has much in common with those groups on the political right who have sought to ban embryonic stem cell research (and yes, in both cases there are a variety of groups seeing various sorts of limitations).  The reaction of the scientific community in both instances has been similar. It is probably just a matter of time before those opposed to geoengineering research (and geoengineering) are called anti-science.


  1. Hmmmm the USA is broke, Euroland is running massive deficits and people still think that going forward they will be willing to spend $billions or even $trillions on pie in the sky global warming engineering projects.

    Historically, the economic debate was "Guns or Butter"

    Going forward it will be "CO2 or Butter"

    Reality is going to be Bee-atch for the Warmista crowd.

  2. I think you're jumping too far. It doesn't say anything about banning research, it refers to "geo-engineering activities". And the inclusion of the phrase "until there is an adequate scientific basis" implies that it is okay to be looking for that scientific basis, which means that some kind of research would be going on. The word "activities" needs to be defined somewhere - maybe it already is - but it seems a stretch to be comparing this to stem cell research bans. I would interpret it to mean just what you say you support/believe.

  3. -2-Dean

    Perhaps I should have included this part of the Kintisch piece:

    "The ETC Group, a Canadian environmental group which has led opposition to geoengineering research in the past, supports a ban."

  4. @Dean

    You say "until there is an adequate scientific basis" when you want the thing banned forever. It puts the work so far into the future that it is effectively banned. The is garden variety gum-up-the-works anti-technology tactics hiding behind the voice of caution.

  5. How would you implement such a ban? If I do geoengineering research on my own time and dime, I can't imagine what the legal basis for banning it would be. In fact, I'd be willing to wager that in the US at least, it's constitutionally protected.

  6. Mark B. #4,

    "Adequate scientific basis" is just another version of the Precautionary Principle. One can never prove a proposed action will be safe so, according to the Precautionary Principle, one should never do it.

  7. So we have an organization called ETC, which supports a ban, and a proposal to an international group. Even the AAAS post says that it is unclear what the text in the proposal really means.

    So it seems that your criticisms are most fairly aimed at ETC, and that the proposal may well be one of those things that means many things to many people. But in any case, I can't imagine that the Convention on Biological Diversity conference is in a position to adopt anything that is binding. In fact, the post says "The Convention is not considered a powerful regulatory treaty per se".

    I also think it is a stretch to compare the ETC position, which is based on their belief that the impact will be negative, to that of stem cell opposition, which is based on theology. Nonetheless, what the conference may or may not do is a different thing from what ETC favors.

  8. #7 Dean

    Perhaps environmentalism is a (not so) new theology?

  9. Relevant in this context is the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI), set up by the Royal Society, TWAS - the academy of sciences for the developing world, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). See this page for more information.

    SRMGI has set up a working group to look specifically at the governance of research on solar radiation management. I chair this working group. It recently issued a call for submissions. More information can be found here (pdf).

  10. Geo-engineering as a result of human activities has been going on since Aboriginal people started setting fires to chase game and change growth patterns.
    If the point of the geo-egineering is to manage climate, my bet is it will fail badly.
    If something like ocean fertilization were used, however, to improve fishery production and the result was some CO2 getting locked up in the process then there could be success.
    But AGW works in the public square in much the same way as a religion, so I have little hope that we will avoid squandering billions on yet more pointless and ineffective AGW driven policies.
    I think it is ironic that many think the resistance to ESC research is simply theological or that ethics should have no role in research choices, when I observe how the AGW community seeks to control the discussion and policy choices irt to energy environment and climate.

  11. Engineering a solution to a problem that doesn't exist is petit bourgois self delusion gone mad. The delusion that you and you and your social class are fundamentally decent and honest. The delusion that climategate didn't happen and that Stephen Schneider (RIP) didn't advise his colleagues to lie.

    That is the esteemed and distinguished climate scientist, Stephen Schneider, not the Dr Stephen Schneider of Kansas jailed for racketeering.

    Peer review

    Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, has said that "But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong."


  12. This comparison seems especially sloppy to me. The objection to embryonic stem cell research has nothing to do with the intended effects of the research. Since most objectors seem to be supporters of adult stem cell research, this seems like a no brainer. The objection is about what you have to do to the embryo to do the research in the first place. The objections noted in the post seem to only be afraid of possible consequences.

    So the difference is between a moral judgment and an empirical judgment. At least, if you accept the objections at face value.

  13. Matt #12,

    IMO, it's worse than that. The very likely rejection problem with genetically non-identical embryonic stem cells imply a need for human cloning in the future.

  14. Hope you will enjoy it when the Chinese, willy nilly start massive global geoengineering projects on their own. Their tastes may not be the same as yours.

  15. EliRabett is absolutely correct to remind us of the potential horror of the 'yellow peril' so beloved of Hollywood 'B' movies.

    According to Chinese computer models, a giant dragon eats the sun during eclipses. If they could persuade the dragon to keep the sun for a six months, we would all be in mortal danger


    I hate to think what the Muslims and the communists are planning.