Public not keen on climate engineering

By Peter Griffin 13/01/2014

As political apathy and inaction on climate change dims hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, scientists are increasing exploring plan B – engineering the climate to avoid the worst of what is predicted to come if emissions can’t be curtailed.

A Royal Society of London paper put the issue squarely in the spotlight in 2009 when it issued an influential paper that suggested we need to take geo-engineering seriously. It recommended that:

– Parties to the UNFCCC should make increased efforts towards mitigating and adapting to climate change and in particular to agreeing to global emissions reductions of at least 50% on 1990 levels by 2050 and more thereafter;

– CDR and SRM geoengineering methods should only be considered as part of a wider package of options for addressing climate change. CDR methods should be regarded as preferable to SRM methods.

– Relevant UK government departments, in association with the UK Research Councils, should together fund a 10 year geoengineering research programme at a level of the order of £10M per annum.

– The Royal Society, in collaboration with international science partners, should develop a code of practice for geoengineering research and provide recommendations to the international scientific community for a voluntary research governance framework.

Some of those recommendations have sunk without trace and there has been laughable progress on others (50% reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 is looking increasingly unrealistic).

The irony is that the later we leave action on climate change mitigation, the quicker our hand will be forced on geo-engineering schemes. As some New Zealand research featured in Nature Climate Change this week suggests, the public is wary of any efforts to engineer the climate, meaning legislative and funding measures to allow it to happen will not be popular.

The researchers conducted an online survey with 2,000 people across New Zealand and Australia and undertook 30 in-depth interviews. Lead author, Professor Malcolm Wright, deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey’s College of Business, said the interviewers drew on commercial methods used to evaluate perception of brands and new products to see what the public’s perception of various proposed climate engineering schemes was.

“The results show that the public has strong negative views towards climate engineering,” said Professor Wright. “Where there are positive reactions, they favour approaches that reduce carbon dioxide over those that reflected sunlight.”

So solar sails are out and biochar and carbon capture and storage are in.

Professor Wright added:

“It is a striking result and a very clear pattern. Interventions such as putting mirrors in space or fine particles into the stratosphere are not well received. More natural processes of cloud brightening or enhanced weathering are less likely to raise objections, but the public react best to creating biochar or capturing carbon directly from the air.”

The results are hardly surprising – and mirror other surveys conducted around the world. But are we willing to do anything not to avoid the wackier geoengineering schemes having to be seriously considered in the next few decades. That’s a different question and would perhaps make for an illuminating survey.

A selection of climate engineering schemes

Cloud seeding
Cloud seeding
A "slab" air contactor
A “slab” air contactor
Solar sails
Solar sails
Marine cloud whitening
Marine cloud whitening


0 Responses to “Public not keen on climate engineering”

  • “Interventions such as putting mirrors in space or fine particles into the stratosphere are not well received.”
    There was an interesting piece in the Herald (I think; I still have holiday brain) suggesting extreme caution when it comes to putting particulates (specifically, sulphates) into the atmosphere, due to the possibility of triggering extreme cooling.
    Ah yes, here we are:

  • It would be interesting to know why the public reject some of these ideas – for example, are mirrors in space being rejected because of various movies which shown such things as weapons.
    It has been interesting over the years to see some of the suggestions, some which are very poorly thought out. When it was discovered adding iron to the oceans encouraged marine plant growth (plankton?) there were suggestions that this could be done to trap more carbon dioxide as plants but I never saw any thought given to what effect this would have on the wider ocean ecosystem. Similarly suggestions for putting sulfur compound particles into the atmosphere seems strange as no thought seems to have been given to the wider ecosystem.
    Biochar is an interesting idea, reducing substances to inert carbon, though it seems wasteful to me to be trapping carbon in such a useless form.
    Any solution needs to consider its overall effect on the surrounding ecosystems otherwise we may cause more problems rather than solutions