Does the Public Want Geoengineering? (And: Does It Need a New Name?)

As someone who has written about geoengineering (and been hit with the requisite slime for doing so), I was more than a little surprised to see the results of a survey about the public’s view of geongineering (abstract here; PDF here) by researchers at the University of Calgary, Harvard, and Simon Fraser University, and published in Environmental Research Letters.  From the press release:

Research on geoengineering appears to have broad public support, as a new, internationally-representative survey revealed that 72 per cent of respondents approved research into the climate-manipulating technique…. Public awareness of geoengineering is remarkably broad. Eight per cent of the sample were able to provide a correct definition of geoengineering, an increase on previous estimates; however, 45 per cent of the sample correctly defined the alternative term “climate engineering”, adding weight to the argument that “geoengineering” may be misleading and difficult to understand.

It does of course raise an eyebrow to read that 72 percent of us support something that only 8 percent of us can define. That said, there are other surprises:

Professor David Keith of Harvard University said: “Some reports have suggested that opposition to geoengineering is associated with environmentalists, but our results do not support this view.

“We found that geoengineering divides people along unusual lines. Support for geoengineering is spread across the political spectrum and is linked to support for science concern about climate change.

“The strongest opposition comes from people who self-identify as politically conservative, who are distrustful of government and other elite institutions, and who doubt the very idea that there is a climate problem.”


Interestingly, global warming was not a key factor in determining an individual’s support or opposition of SRM. The researchers hypothesised that seeing climate change as an important issue, and its causes anthropogenic, would be an obvious predictor of support.

Ashley Mercer, lead author of the study, said: “I think this is the first in line of many studies that will show that SRM intersects with people’s political and environmental attitudes in surprising ways.

“The results suggest that dialogue surrounding this topic needs to be broadened to include ideas of risk, values and trade-off.”

Also worth noting: a BBC article about the survey also notes that a geoengineering pilot program in the U.K.  (using water droplets rather than sulfur dioxide, e.g.) has been delayed for six months over public concerns.

And finally: Ken Caldeira, one of the climate scientists at the center of our SuperFreakonomics chapter on geoengineering, continues to explore its viability, also in Environmental Research Letters.

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  1. Nanno says:

    “The results suggest that dialogue surrounding this topic needs to be broadened to include ideas of risk, values and trade-off.”

    So we’re saying it might be helpful but we don’t know or cannot make a reasonable estimate of the consequences yet. Compliments on knocking down an open door.

    In my opinion the main things that should be noted about geoengineering is that everything we do already effects our environment, there are also natural changes within the environment, nature has a very delicate way of balancing itself and consequences are hard to predict and not always local. Now I’m definitely not against geoengineering, I see it as inevitable, I do think, however, that our first and main focus should be on how to reduce our effect on the environment on a large scale and then maybe start thinking about tinkering with more local circumstances so as to maximize the benefit for that area without causing harm to others.

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  2. Nanno says:

    On the topic of the name “geoengineering”

    I think the term geoengineering is fine, first of all wer’re talking about using man made machines and about influencing processes, both of which can be described as engineering.

    Secondly, as Wiki so nicely explains: As a prefix: geo- is taken from the Greek word ?? or ???? meaning “earth”, usually in the sense of “ground or land”. Geo- is thus a prefix for many words dealing in some way with the earth.

    That last sentence does it, Geo is correct, engineering is correct so what’s wrong with the term geoengineering

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    • Jeff says:

      There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s also nothing wrong with labeling a bottle with “Dihydrogen Monoxide,” but a friendlier name, such as Water,” will certainly sell more bottles.

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      • Nanno says:

        Ok, fair enough. (although I think when you tell people you can write that as H2O most will know it is water)

        So what do you suggest, sticking with influencing, altering, making the environment, earth, sky, air.

        We could call it skyscaping (I’m not sure where I’ve heard this but I’m quite sure didn’t just come up with it) as in airborne landscaping.

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    • nobody.really says:

      What’s wrong with “Geo engineering”?

      Ever drive a Chevy Geo? “Nuf said.

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  3. Mike B says:

    One of these days China will just decide on some Unilateral climate engineering action to, if nothing else, deflect global criticism about its coal use and safeguard its own domestic water supply. When the action proves to be a success it will be formalized into some globalized regime.

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  4. James says:

    There’s another complicating factor for those of us who have some idea of what geoengineering might entail, which is that we might approve of some types of geoengineering, but strongly oppose others. For instance, stuffing the stratosphere full of SO2 is (in my not-so-humble opinion) a remarkably bad idea on too many counts to list, while orbiting mirrors, or revegetating the Sahara, Australia, and the American West would be worth looking at.

    Still, the most viable option seems to be scaling way back on the geoengineering we’re currently doing by increasing atmospheric CO2 levels.

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  5. Horatio says:

    No and no.

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  6. jaydayrock says:

    Seriously, folks, don’t tell me you think by shooting aluminum, barium, nano-particles of one thing or another, strontium, and various other substances, would solve a problem? Which particular problem
    are you concerned about? The so called global warming scam? How about climate change?

    Geoengineering, which has been going on for many years at least in NATO countries, causes
    temperatures to remain higher at night, while dimming the sun; causing massive disruptions
    in plant and animal life.

    These are the folks that are being bought by big pharma, big business, and big military. Good luck!

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  7. Vikram says:

    Hi Steven,
    Why is it that Nathan and the team never investigated spraying sulfur dioxide from the exhaust of jet planes as a low cost solution to cooling down the earth? Is it not possible to mix-in a non-reactive form of this chemical into jet fuel? Perhaps into cargo flights?

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  8. Utahn says:

    Vikram, that would really vindicate some chemtrail theorists, very interesting. Since they’re already going crazy over nonexistent chemtrailing, I wonder what will happen if we really do it? How many people will start to feel sick when they feel there was too much spraying overhead? I see lawsuits…

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