Can we mimic volcanoes and cool the earth?

Geoengineering — deliberate, planetary-scale efforts to counter the impact of climate change — is so controversial that a high-powered 18-member Washington task force that spent almost two years studying the idea couldn’t decide what to call it.

Most want to rename it “climate remediation.” A few want to stick with geoengineering. But all agreed that, whatever you call it, the U.S. government should begin “a coordinated federal research program to explore the potential effectiveness, feasibility, and consequences of climate remediation technologies.”

In a 33-page report released today in Washington, the task force of the Bipartisan Policy Center emphasized that climate remediation is not a substitute for managing the risks of climate change through mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, most of them generated by burning fossil fuels). It also says that no geoengineering technology is ready for deployment.

But, the group said, it’s imperative that governments, scientists and engineers learn more about geoengineering because the risks of climate change are increasing.

Mitigation measures currently being considered, regardless of their pace of efficacy, will not be able to return atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels for centuries…

Although we do not know exactly how much the climate will change or how fast, globally disruptive or even catastrophic results are possible…Global climate change could unfold in ways that would be very difficult to manage

In plain language: what we’re doing (or not doing) now to deal with climate change isn’t working, and the consequences of those failures are likely to be disastrous.

“I’m not sure we would have had a consensus recommendation on research if mitigation efforts were going great guns,” said Stephen Rademaker, co-chair of the task force and a former assistant secretary of state during the Bush II administration. 

Indeed, the report points to a number of climate impacts — threats to food supply, threats to water supply, lost of Arctic ice which could accelerate the rise in global temperatures or the massive releases of CO2 and methane from the Arctic — that, if they occur, would create the kind of global emergency that, without warning, could put the idea of geoengineering front and center.

“We’re being driven by a fear of climate change that is real and palpable,” said Jane Long, a climate and energy expert from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and co-chair of the panel.

“We don’t know when the climate may tip,” said Richard Elliot Benedick, a former ambassador and chief U.S. negotiator for the 1987 Montreal protocol to protect the ozone layer. “Nature does not give us an early warning system.”

Other members of the BPC task force included natural scientists, social scientists, policy experts, environmentalists (Steve Hamburg of Environmental Defense Fund and David Goldston of NRDC) as well several leading researchers into geoengineering (David Keith of Harvard and the University of Calgary, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution at Stanford and Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon).

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m fascinated by geoengineering. [See Suck It Up: an unorthodox climate solution and Is Geoengineering Ready for Prime Time?] I’ve got a story coming out soon in Fortune on technologies to capture CO2 from the air, and I’m writing a short e-book on the topic as well. Broadly speaking, there are two major categories of climate remediation: carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies that are aimed at removing CO2  from the atmosphere and solar radiation management (SRM) technologies that are designed to block the sun’s rays from hitting the earth, by, for example, seeding marine clouds or introducing very fine particles into the stratosphere to deflect radiation. The idea of SRM is based on natural processes; when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, injecting 20 million tons of SO2 into the atmosphere, global temperatures cooled by nearly 1 degree F over the next 15 months.

The technology, policy and ethical issues raised by geoengineering are vexing. If you are at all interested, I’d recommend you read the report, which is available for download here.  It follows reports from the British Royal Academy of Sciences and the Government Accountability Office recommending geoengineering research.

No one, of course, is enthusiastic about the idea of deliberating messing with the earth’s atmospheric.

As the report says:

Most climate remediation concepts proposed to date involve some combination of risks, financial costs, and/or physical limitations that make them inappropriate to pursue except as complementary or emergency measures—for example, if the climate system reaches a “tipping point” and swift remedial action is required.

“If (climate remediation) is a very bad idea, the sooner we know that and take if off the table, the better off we’ll be,” said economist Thomas Schelling, a task force member.

But, task force members said, the technologies need to be better understood, if only so that the U.S. can respond to their deployment by others. Sovereign nations or even wealthy individuals, at least in theory could try geoengineering.

“Other countries or even the private sector might take steps, and we have no way of knowing what the impacts would be,” said the NRDC’s Goldston.

Whether the government will listen to the panel’s report and study geoengineering is, of course, very much unknown. The costs of research would be modest but, as Goldston noted, this “isn’t exactly a time of government largesse.”

The topic is also controversial. Just this week, a small scale British experiment to test the ability of a one-kilometer hose to spray water droplets into the air was postponed because of opposition from nonprofit groups, notably a Canadian organization called the ETC Group hat opposes geoengineering.

The task force’s debate over what to call the technologies arose, in part, from the belief that “geoengineering” implies, in a hubristic way, that humans can engineering manipulate and manage the planet. A majority preferred the term “climate remediation” to focus the conversation back on climate — which is, in the end, what geoengineering is all about.