We should plan for the worst-case climate scenario

By Ken Caldeira, July 29, 2008

The widespread desire for the “good life” afforded by economic growth and development places us increasingly at risk of profound and widespread climate damage. Much of the developing world seeks to emulate the coal-powered development of China and India, while those of us in the developed world seek ways to kick-start our relatively moribund, fossil-fueled economies.

We need a climate engineering research and development plan. We may hope or even expect that we will collectively agree to delay some of this economic growth and development and invest instead in costlier energy systems that don’t threaten Earth’s climate. Nevertheless, prudence demands that we consider what we might do if cuts in carbon dioxide emissions prove too little or too late to avoid unacceptable climate damage.

A climate engineering research plan should be built around important questions rather than preconceived answers. It should anticipate and embrace innovation and recognize that a portfolio of divergent but defensible paths is most likely to reveal a successful path forward; we should be wary of assuming that we’ve already thought of the most promising approaches or the most important unintended consequences.

A climate engineering research plan must include both scientific and engineering components. Science is needed to address critical questions, among them: How effective would various climate engineering proposals be at achieving their climate goals? What unintended outcomes might result? How might these unintended outcomes affect both human and natural systems?

Engineering is needed both to build deployable systems and to keep the science focused on what’s technically feasible.

Initially, emphasis should be placed on science over engineering. But if the science continues to indicate that climate engineering has the potential to diminish climate risk, increasing emphasis should be placed on building the systems and field-testing them so they’ll be ready as an option.

There’s a slippery slope from laboratory research to large-scale deployment. The science needs to start in computers and in the laboratory, but at some point, will need to proceed outside. It’s only by experiments in the environment that we’ll be able to test whether the models and laboratory extrapolations are relevant to the real world. And once experimentation starts in the outdoors, there’s merely a matter of degree between experimentation and deployment.

Public engagement will be crucial, as will the framing of climate engineering research against the broader range of efforts to reduce both damage and risk of damage from climate change.

Because there are important societal decisions to be made regarding climate engineering, open public communication is necessary at all stages of research–closed scientific meetings on climate engineering must become a thing of the past. Climate engineering research programs should be internationalized and scientific discussion and results shared openly by all.

We cannot afford a new period of Lysenkoism and allow political correctness to pollute our scientific judgment. Scientific research and engineering development should be divorced from moral posturing and policy prescription. As scientists and engineers, we can say what is and what can be. Armed with this information, we can join with our fellow citizens to discuss what ought to be done.

Only fools find joy in the prospect of climate engineering. It’s also foolish to think that risk of significant climate damage can be denied or wished away. Perhaps we can depend on the transcendent human capacity for self-sacrifice when faced with unprecedented, shared, long-term risk, and therefore can depend on future reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But just in case, we’d better have a plan.

Topics: Climate Change


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