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.