The Case For Climate Engineering Research: A Guest Post By SPICE Researcher Matthew Watson

(Photo: Lyn ingodsgarden)

This is a guest post by Matthew Watson, a lecturer in geophysical natural hazards at the University of Bristol and the lead researcher for the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project (SPICE), whose experiments are currently on hold. He blogs at The Reluctant Geoengineer.

The Case For Climate Engineering Research
By Matthew Watson 

As project lead for the SPICE project (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering), I have been on quite a journey over the last eighteen months. SPICE is important, challenging, socio-politically charged, and high-profile: a heady mix for a youngish researcher like me. It looks to answer the question “Can we emulate the cooling observed after large volcanic eruptions to ameliorate the worst effects of global warming?” Despite playing to my apparent Messiah complex, the trials and tribulations of steering the project through rough seas has been more than enough to keep my feet on the ground. That is a challenge that faces all who research such grand things. 

One of the leitmotifs of the recent discussions around the SPICE project technology test cancellation was the overwhelming support for the remainder, more than ninety percent of the project, to continue. This is important to point out as the good work being done by scientists and engineers outside of the field experiment is often lost. Over the course of the project supporters and objectors of climate engineering research have used the experiences of SPICE to bolster their argument. Both sides present strong arguments, which, when couched fairly make for an intense and stimulating debate. I personally believe passionately in research into climate engineering – knowledge always beats ignorance. With knowledge comes risks we must be mindful of however, as we look for an easy way out of the crisis that looms large.

Objectors’ responses to allowing researchers to explore climate engineering are entirely predictable. Firstly, we were accused of being ‘in it for the research money’, an obnoxious slur borrowed from climate sceptics when describing climate scientists. When this didn’t appear to stick objectors began to change tack. Now, we are “sweet and naive”: well-meaning, bumbling boffins, trying to help but only providing ammunition to the Machiavellian aims of politicians too lazy or corrupt to do anything but retain the status quo. It’s better than being purely evil I suppose, but not by much. 

Next, I predict, we’ll be encouraged to turn on each other and our research will be used to try to “divide and conquer.” Differences of opinion are our modus operandi. It’s already beginning to happen. Stock responses to papers suggesting climate engineering might work/have positive impacts (no matter how buried in caveats) include demonizing the researchers involved. On the other hand, research, including several recently published papers, is already being used to suggest that climate engineering (and by extraction from objectors researching climate engineering) is a waste of time. Just think about that paradox for a moment – “research into climate engineering shows research into climate engineering is worthless.”

What these papers demonstrate is that it is surely better to know than not. After all three large volcanic eruptions of the latter half of the 20th century rainfall patterns were impacted by increased aerosol. Does this mean that this form of climate engineering should be discarded? No, it doesn’t. Make no mistake, no form of climate engineering is a free ride and we cannot get back to where we were. There will be winners and losers if we deploy stratospheric aerosols or not, unless we change, as an entire species, very, very quickly. 

The questions we have to ask are “What are the impacts of both scenarios?” and “Given the evidence, which is preferable?” I am often asked, “Is climate engineering a good idea?” My response is “I’ve no idea, but it would be a good idea to know if it’s a bad idea.” Only through research can we generate the evidence base for a salient answer. It is vitally important that scientists are given the space within which to ask and try to answer difficult questions.

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  1. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Who knows…but you can, for the present time, try to build the strato-hose and test it with water to see if it works. My guess is that it won’t because of atmospheric shear forces, which are immense, and changeable. Air has mass that is difficult to perceive, since we live in it, but when it moves it is incomprehensibly powerful.

    This is not to say you should abandon the idea, just that you should find some other method of distribution.

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    • Travis says:

      Isn’t that the point of doing research though, to find out it’s viability? Dr. Watson (Awesome!? sorry…) doesn’t seem to be advocating a specific type of climate engineering (CE), just that research on CE is justified and something we should do, to determine if and how it could be viable.

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  2. Cralis says:

    I’d be more tempted to listen to this guy if he didn’t pick out the most extreme arguments against AGW as examples of “the only arguments they have.” Nobody debates that there is change in the climate, but the question is whether or not it is catastrophic and/or unnatural, and whether interfering with it will actually damage it.

    I’m a firm believer that if you have to lie, manipulate, or ridicule your opposition; you are wrong. It doesn’t matter if your argument has merit or not because we can’t determine if it has merit without going to a source that isn’t doing the above. So I ignore people who do that and seek out only people worth listening to.

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  3. Nick says:

    I’ve always wondered, since airport temperatures are commonly used by local news stations as the official temperature for a city, how much of a part do they play in climatology studies? I would think that most airports have been expanded at least once over the last 50-60 years, which would alter the albedo around the nearby vicinity of the measuring equipment, and I wonder if that’s had any meaningful effect on reported global temperatures.

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      There are myriad reasons to suspect that the temperature measurements are in error, e.g.:

      A very long time ago all the weather station boxes were painted with white lead paint. Little by little they’ve been repainted with latex. White lead is a great reflector of infrared. Latex…not so much. There’s your degree C right there.

      Please Big Oil Companies…send me a cheque.

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  4. MeanOnSunday says:

    As someone who supports this type of research I think Dr Watson is either naive or avoiding the real issue. The people holding up his research are not those who have doubts about the human contribution to global warming, or the utility of reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. His opponents are the “true believers” for whom climate change is not a science, but a religion in which any man-made change is by definition evil.

    Any rational view of the SPICE project would conclude that it cannot possibly cause harm. Yet it has become a political football because the mere existence of such a project challenges the belief system of many so-called environmentalists who cannot accept any potential solution that does not involve limiting human growth and development.

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  5. Paulo says:

    What is striking is that we don’t have two camps, one in favor of deploying climate engineering and one against it. There is a side that wants to RESEARCH the possibility of climate engineering and another that wants that research to stop. That leads one to question not the data that the climate change industry has (scientists and activists), but their sincerity when they say they just want to prevent humanity from suffering a catastrophe. They are not. Any solution that does not involve “changing the way we live” is utterly unacceptable. And changing the whole world economy is much more of a monumental problem to solve. Has anyone thought about that for two seconds? Or do people just believe with Al Gore that making the whole planet go into a low-carbon economy is only going to affect the affluent? Speaking of experiences in emissions, a lot of countries already passed laws in that regard. Has anyone measured the cost of those changes in comparison to the actual emissions, in order to verify the feasibility of going low-carbon? What you always get is huge costs versus non-measurable results. Trying to marginalize research on earth engineering is a much bigger crime than denying climate change.

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    • James says:

      I think you are wrong on there being two camps. The disagreement seems not to be about whether to research climate engineering in general – a good idea, IMHO – but on whether we don’t already know that this particular approach of pumping the atmosphere full of sulfates will cause even greater problems.

      You do need to remember that we have already tried something quite similar, with sulfate emissions from power plants & high-sulfur fuels. That’s how we got region-blanketing smog, acid rain, and ultimately the Clean Air acts. Oh, and the ongoing denialist meme about scientists in the ’70s predicting global cooling.

      As for changing the way we live, whyever not? I’ve certainly changed the way I live over my lifetime, as I became more prosperous and hence in some degree able to escape the various unpleasantnesses of the so-called American Way of Life. I find it hard to believe that people really enjoy e.g. spending a couple of hours each day commuting from a suburban box to an urban box, and back again.

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