Planet Earth cannot be cooled through emissions reduction alone was the emphasis of this morning’s expert panel on climate geoengineering at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Experts from Congress, academia and the environmental community joined forces to address the possibility of geoengineering and some of the challenges associated with the highly controversial topic.
Former White House Council of Environmental Quality official Sam Thernstrom, who is now co-director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Geoengineering Project, gave a basic overview of geoengineering. He explained how it is a large-scale effort to modify the environment to reduce the effects of global warming. Thernstrom explained how CO2 is persistent in the atmosphere, and the climate challenge is much tougher than many people make it out to be. Emissions reduction is not happening, so we need to look to other alternatives.
Thernstrom explained the two different approaches to geoengineering. First, there is solar radiation management. In this approach, there would be a release of sulfur aerosols (or aluminum may be an alternative) into the stratosphere. By putting these chemicals into the environment, a little less than 2 percent of sunlight would be blocked, thus resulting in a cooling effect. Thernstrom explained this scientific concept came from the study of the chemicals that volcanoes release, which cool the planet. He also stated how this would be the most simple and affordable means of engineering the environment and would be reversible if necessary.
The second approach would be cloud brightening. A fine mist of sea water would be sprayed into the cloud to make it more dense. With more dense clouds in the atmosphere, sunlight would be reflected back into space and cool the planet. Each of these two different approaches has its own dangers, Thernstrom explained. However, global warming has incredible risks as well.
“Ignorance of geoengineering has incredible risks,” Thernstrom said.
He also stated all of these studies are based on computer simulations and there is a significant amount of research that still needs to be done. He said, “Knowledge would be cheap to acquire and potentially priceless.”
Thernstrom wanted to be sure to inform the audience that geoengineering is not the only answer to fix climate change, and it is not a quick fix. It is a conservation tool, not a cure.
Environmental author Jeff Goodell, who wrote Big Coal and the more recently released How to Cool the Planet, said people told him he was nuts for writing the book, but now “it has become a surprisingly central topic.” He believes we are at a turning point and the need for federal research is very clear. Goodell thinks there needs to be more research and development to figure out what the risks are and what the capabilities may be. Goodell is afraid of human apathy and believes we are in charge of what kind of world we want to live in.
A staff member for House Science and Technology Committee Chair Bart Gordon, Christopher King, believes awareness is growing, but “we have to get ahead of geoengineering before it gets ahead of us.” The House Science and Technology Committee has had three hearings already on geoengineering. One of them was focused on just a basic understanding, one was around the specific scientific methods behind geoengineering, and the final one was on policy. King spoke about the potential stakeholders and explained how research and development is the crucial focus right now for the Committee. As far as policy, “the trajectory is unclear,” he said.
King said there should be a report out in the next few months, but this is just the beginning of a process and a lot more education needs to be done. The general public cannot agree whether climate change is even an issue, the staffer said. This is a new area of science and far from regulation.