Last week in Monterey, California, hundreds of scientists, environmental groups, think-tank types, and philosophers attended the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies. The topic at hand was geoengineering. And a good chunk of the conference was spent talking about what that term even means, since it can refer both to technologies that suck CO2 out of the air (which are mostly non-problematic, unless you're trying to, oh, create toxic plankton blooms in the ocean) and to technologies that manipulate the Earth's climate by, say, blocking the amount of sunlight that hits the planet (the latter's a bit dodgier).
But once that was out of the way, the conference moved on to more interesting discussions about how geoengineering technologies should be regulated and governed. After all, if our best efforts to curb greenhouse gases fail and we decide to sprinkle sulfates in the sky in order to block sunlight and stop global warming, well, who does the sprinkling? And what if the sulfates mess up global rainfall patterns, as many experts expect—who's responsible for the harm done? What if one country decides to go rogue and do a little geoengineering on its own?
And that's only the start. Jeff Goodell, who a) has written a fantastic new book on geoengineering and b) attended the conference, reports on a number of tough questions that were raised—including the question who's going to pay for all this geoengineering research:
It was generally agreed that for CO2-sucking technologies, private investment was not a problem [n.b., assuming we have some sort of cap-and-trade system in place]. Sunlight-reduction technologies, however, are another issue. if some company (or entrepreneur) is able to develop a new way of injecting particles into the stratosphere that becomes indispensible to the survival of the human race, well, that gives that company or person a lot of leverage.
“I’m not interested in selling my soul to some company who is going to control how much sunlight hits the planet,” said Phil Rasch, a climate modeler at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state. (As one audience member quipped, “Gives new meaning to company town.”) Granger Morgan, the head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, argued that the creation of a profit motive would inevitably lead to a geoengineering lobby: “Lobbying is the last thing we need on this.”
Well, there's always government funding, though that can raise its own worries, especially if national militaries want to start funding climate-intervention tech. (Some Pentagon officials are already mulling the idea.) It sort of sounds like there are so many potential headaches lurking that many of these geoengineering schemes—even they could cool the planet—are unlikely to be any simpler or easier than cutting CO2 emissions.