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E&E Daily: House Geoengineering Hearings Begin This Week

CLIMATE: Science panel begins discussions of engineering fixes to global warming  (Monday, November 2, 2009)

Katie Howell, E&E reporter

While much of Congress is focused on a regulatory plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a House panel plans to probe more creative and controversial measures to cool the planet.

The House Science and Technology Committee meets this week to discuss "geoengineering," a concept that would employ technological fixes to stave off global warming. Ideas include injecting sulfur dioxide particles high into the atmosphere to mimic the cooling effect of a major volcanic eruption, seeding the ocean with iron to boost growth of carbon dioxide-fixing algae and installing an array of deflecting lenses between the Earth and sun to reduce solar heat striking the planet.

Mainstream scientists have generally shied away from the proposals, saying they run the risk of further damaging the biosphere or could cost much more than reduction of pollution from fossil fuels. But interest in geoengineering has grown in recent years as concerns mount that emissions reductions policies won't be able to stabilize the planet's climate quickly enough to avoid dangerous global warming.

Now, some scientists are saying the geoengineering options should be researched as a backup solution in case stringent greenhouse gas cuts fail.

The House panel is the first to address the controversial but timely subject and will hear from experts in the field about the proposed options and the potential consequences.

A committee aide said the hearing was not meant to endorse geoengineering, but to serve as an in-depth conversation about the full range of perspectives and potential consequences.

The committee could also discuss with experts previous efforts to control weather and climate. For instance, in the early 19th Century, meteorologist James Espy proposed a scheme to regulate temperature and rainfall by lighting massive wood fires along the Appalachian Mountain ridge to create large clouds and regular rainfall, according to James Fleming, a science, technology and society professor at Colby College.

Other early forays into the field include a proposal to spread reflective particles over the ocean, which was included in a 1965 environmental report from President Lyndon Johnson's Science Advisory Committee, and the Defense Department's attempt to alter the weather in Vietnam for military purposes during the Vietnam War.

"In facing unprecedented challenges, it is good to seek historical precedents," Fleming, who will testify at Thursday's hearing, said during a talk at a geoengineering conference in Cambridge, Mass., last week. "History matters, and it matters that it goes into conversations about public policy," he added to E&E.

Fleming advocates for the consideration of the historical, ethical, legal, moral and societal aspects of geoengineering -- and not as an afterthought to scientific research. He is concerned how geoengineering could alter humans' relationship with nature. For instance, injecting sulfate into the atmosphere would create a milky white -- rather than blue -- sky. And it would block out stars at night so ground astronomy would be impossible.

Reporter Lauren Morello contributed.

Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, Nov. 5, at 10 a.m. in 2318 Rayburn.

Witnesses: Ken Caldeira, senior scientist, Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Global Ecology; John Shepherd, professor, University of Southampton's National Oceanography Centre; Lee Lane, co-director, American Enterprise Institute's geoengineering project; James Fleming, professor and director, Colby College's Science, Technology and Society department; and Alan Robock, environmental sciences professor, Rutgers University.

Category: Geoengineering
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