Tweaking the Climate to Save It: Who Decides?

To the quiet green solitude of an English country estate they retreated, to think the unthinkable.

In this Wednesday, March 9, 2011 picture, a boy walks with an umbrella to protect himself from the rain, as dark clouds hover over him in Jammu, India. If Earth overheats, can it be artificially cooled? Should the effort begin now? Who would decide? The very idea of “geoengineering,” and the unknown risks of tweaking our climate, left many participants in a March 2011 conference of international experts in Chicheley, England uneasy. (AP Photo/Channi Anand) Collapse

Scientists of earth, sea and sky, scholars of law, politics and philosophy: In three intense days cloistered behind Chicheley Hall’s old brick walls, four dozen thinkers pondered the planet’s fate as it grows warmer, weighed the idea of reflecting the sun to cool the atmosphere and debated the question of who would make the decision to interfere with nature to try to save the planet.

The unknown risks of “geoengineering” — in this case, tweaking Earth’s climate by dimming the skies — left many uneasy.

“If we could experiment with the atmosphere and literally play God, it’s very tempting to a scientist,” said Kenyan earth scientist Richard Odingo. “But I worry.”

Arrayed against that worry is the worry that global warming — in 20 years? 50 years? — may abruptly upend the world we know, by melting much of Greenland into the sea, by shifting India’s life-giving monsoon, by killing off marine life.

If climate engineering research isn’t done now, climatologists say, the world will face grim choices in an emergency. “If we don’t understand the implications and we reach a crisis point and deploy geoengineering with only a modicum of information, we really will be playing Russian roulette,” said Steven Hamburg, a U.S. Environmental Defense Fund scientist.

The question’s urgency has grown as nations have failed, in years of talks, to agree on a binding long-term deal to rein in their carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N.-sponsored science network, foresees temperatures rising as much as 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, swelling the seas and disrupting the climate patterns that nurtured human civilization.

Science committees of the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress urged their governments last year to look at immediately undertaking climate engineering research — to have a “Plan B” ready, as the British panel put it, in case the diplomatic logjam persists.

Britain’s national science academy, the Royal Society, subsequently organized the Chicheley Hall conference with Hamburg’s EDF and the association of developing-world science academies. From six continents, they invited a blue-ribbon cross-section of atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, geochemists, environmentalists, international lawyers, psychologists, policy experts and others, to discuss how the world should oversee such unprecedented — and unsettling — research.

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