16 December 2010

Selling the science of geoengineering

Posted by mohi

It is a shocking idea, a terrifying idea, yet a mesmerizing idea–and it could just save the planet.

Can geoengineering save us? Eli Kintish ponders this and other issues in his new book

We are witnessing the birth of the a new field in science: geoengineering, or deliberate, human-caused climate change. Eli Kintisch, author of the recently published Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope — or Worst Nightmare — for Averting Climate Catastrophe spoke Wednesday in the session GC31D: Bestsellers by AGU Authors on Global Environmental Change I.

This “curious and terrifying” idea, he said, is very much in vogue. “For the moment, the idea is just remaining an idea.” Though the field receives a lot of attention, it is in its infancy and development has been sparse.

For example: Some researchers have suggested injecting particles in the air to reflect solar rays or promoting algal growth in the ocean to capture carbon, but experiments are few and far between. So how the scientific community talks about it can shape the debate–and the public’s perception of it–as much as any single study or report.

If the idea of geoenginnering is portrayed as easy, effective, and safe, then policy makers and businesses may become more resistant to changing how industries pollute. “I don’t think downplaying the audacity is a good idea,” Kintisch said.

But if deifying geoenginnering is a dangerous risk, Kintisch said, so is demonizing it. “It is a bad idea,” he said. “But it is a bad idea whose time has come.” He believes studying it, holding the idea for consideration, is a responsible act. If we turn our back on it, we are ignoring the life-destroying consequences of extreme climate change. Doctors who perform amputations to save lives, for example, are not considered barbarians. Kintisch feels that much of the rhetoric surrounding geoenginnering has been flawed and skewed. He asked researchers to describe work in this field, as in all fields, with honesty, with openness, and without Power Point presentations.

“We feel comfortable when we up numbers up, but you need to focus on your words and look your audience in the face.”

–Danielle Venton is a science communication graduate student at UC Santa Cruz