CLIMATE: Science panel begins discussions of engineering fixes to global warming (Monday, November 2, 2009)
Katie Howell, E&E reporter
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.
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.
some scientists are saying the geoengineering options should be
researched as a backup solution in case stringent greenhouse gas cuts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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