Researching a technofix for the climate is dangerous. Or maybe it’s essential?


Geoengineering It may be that we can counteract global warming with radical technological measures. But is it responsible to try? That’s the question.

“You have fire insurance for your house, even though the chance of your house burning down is minimal. You can see research into climate modification as insurance for a situation where things go badly wrong with climate change”, says Claudia Wieners. “It’s exactly these kinds of misleading metaphors that I have trouble with”, says Jeroen Oomen. “Because fire insurance doesn’t ensure that there’s a greater chance of your house burning down. Research into climate modification, however, ensures that we are at greater risk of the ultimate catastrophe.”

The conversation has only just started. But it’s obvious from the outset that Wieners and Oomen have totally different views on research into climate modification.

We are sitting on red settees at a coffee table in the open-plan office of Oomen’s research group at Utrecht University. Oomen is a political scientist and sociologist who conducts research into the administrative and social side of climate modification, aka climate engineering or geoengineering. Wieners works at the same university, in a building further along. She is a climate physicist who conducts modelling research into, among other things, stratosphere injections, a type of climate modification. The likelihood that global warming will remain below 1.5 degrees is becoming ever smaller, according to the latest report by the UN’s panel on climate change, the IPCC, which was published this week. In the meantime, the consequences of global warming – flooding, drought, hurricanes, forest fires – are becoming more evident. Technical interventions, such as injecting sunlight reflecting sulphur particles into the stratosphere, may be able to counter these consequences.

A technofix of this nature is fraught with uncertainties: it is not clear how the climate would respond to it globally, there are a large number of technical issues, and nobody has any idea how a programme of this kind could be managed on a global scale. Research is needed. Or not, as the case may be. There are fierce critics who see major risks, not only in the deployment of climate modification itself but even in the conducting of research into it.

The debate around this is in its infancy. As things stand, the arguments are simplistic; this must change, say Wieners and Oomen.

Even if there’s a small chance of things going seriously wrong, you still want to be able to do something

How can Oomen be so sure that even just conducting research will make climate change worse?

“Because it plays into the hands of industry and the politicians, who have been dragging their heels for years”, says Oomen. “Until about ten years ago they said that climate change didn’t exist. Then they said that people didn’t have any influence over it. Now we’re seeing climate modification coming up in some of those arenas with the argument that we don’t need to bother so much about climate change. And, nowadays, we have a policy system that is keen to find an easy solution.”

Jeroen Oomen

“But even if there’s a small chance of things going seriously wrong, you still want to be able to do something”, says Oomen. “That’s the dilemma I’m faced with.”

“There is already a significant chance that things will go wrong, even with 1.5 degrees of warming", says Wieners. “Because climate sensitivity could be greater than anticipated, or because West Antarctica, which is storing up a seven-metre increase in sea levels, is more unstable than we think, and there are many other uncertainties. What do you do if things go wrong? And what do you do if someone says: those floods and forest fires are now so bad, we’re just going to go for it?”

“People who say that you can’t let the genie out of the bottle really annoy me”, says Wieners. “The genie already is out of the bottle. I think we have to prepare ourselves for a situation where things go wrong. Either with global warming itself, or with someone who wants a quick fix and recklessly ends up just going for it.”

“If you really want to know what I think will actually happen in 50 or 100 years' time, I think you’re right, someone will just recklessly go for it”, says Oomen. “Given the current balance of power, I’d say it will be the US that, at some point in time, suffers six climate disasters in a year and, as a result, ends up just going for it. That really worries me.”

I wish critics would look at the problem in a more practical way

And despite that fear, you still think that there shouldn’t be any research.

“From a climate science perspective, I think too often people think that science and policy can easily be separated”, says Oomen. “In practice, that is simply not the case. If you make research into climate modification part of the IPCC, for example, it will filter through into policy. That’s what happened with CO2 removal too. Those technologies haven’t yet proven themselves on a large scale, but they’ve already been included in the scenarios. You can already see in negotiations that countries that have trouble with restrictive research policy are also the countries that have the most trouble with sentences like: fossil fuels must be banned.”

“So you don’t want to leave research to those kinds of countries, then”, says Wieners. “And certainly not to oil companies. Because if they do their research behind closed doors, and then suddenly come out with a solution, it’s difficult to scrutinise it properly. For me, the most important question is this: does research make it more likely that if we use it, we will use it properly”, says Wieners. Oomen: “It makes the likelihood of it being deployed greater. Also of someone hijacking it and doing it completely wrong.”

“Not necessarily”, says Wieners. “Look at ocean iron fertilization, the idea of adding iron filings to oceans to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which absorbs CO2. At one time there were high expectations around this, but local experiments proved that it didn’t work. That idea is now off the table.” “That’s true”, says Oomen, “but the impact that stratosphere injection has is far greater, as is the claim as to what it can do. That is extremely attractive for a demagogue.”

“Another major argument for not researching it is that climate modification can’t be managed”, says Oomen. “There’s no direct evidence for this, but it’s clear from the total absence of effective policy based on mutual trust. There is simply not one example of this, not in the case of such global issues.”

Does Wieners have different views on the argument of unmanageability to Oomen?

“Perhaps you need to ask yourself whether three degrees of warming wouldn’t pose a bigger problem in terms of management”, says Wieners. “At that point, parts of the world would be uninhabitable due to heatwaves and rising sea levels. Migration is already not going well, but maybe an imperfect solution is easier to organise than the consequences of three degrees of warming.

“I think climate scientists see better what can go wrong with the climate, and policy scientists see what can go wrong with policy. Although that dividing line is not clear cut”, says Wieners. “I just wish critics would look at the problem in a more practical way.
 We both realise that we need to have something up our sleeves for a scenario where things go badly wrong, so what do you think we should do?”

“Clearly that’s the big question,” says Oomen. “I’m not saying I’m against all the research. Before we go any further however we need to consider whether a responsible research programme is possible. We need to hold off on the research for a couple of years while we consider the conditions that need to be imposed.”

Citizens need to have the option of saying that they don’t want research to be carried out above their territory

What kinds of conditions do you mean?

“In the first instance a moratorium, a binding agreement between all countries that climate modification cannot be deployed”, says Oomen. “For me, that really is non-negotiable.” Wieners: “Okay, but I think that should only be for five or ten years, for example, then we need to review the situation based on the knowledge that we have at that time.”

Oomen: “No. Then you’re still suggesting that in five years' time it’s okay to do it and that would still divert the focus away from reducing emissions. The message of a permanent moratorium is totally different. Ultimately, at some point compromises will be made, but then it would really have to be treated as the breaking up of a firm agreement. But I don’t think the US, China or Saudi Arabia would ever sign a moratorium anyway.”

Wieners: “They might be more likely to sign one if it wasn’t forever.”

Oomen: “Transparency is really important too. Everything has to be open access and no patents can be granted”, says Oomen. “So nothing can lead to commercialisation. And consult over everything you do, especially when it comes to experiments outdoors. And citizens need to have the option of saying that they don’t want research to be carried out above their territory.”

“I think that last suggestion is crazy”, says Wieners. “It happened with an experiment that Harvard wanted to carry out above Sweden. But how can people who happen to live near a launch pad for stratospheric balloons be allowed to make decisions about something that for people who live on a sinking island could mean the difference between being forced to leave their homes or otherwise?”

We will never understand the consequences of stratosphere injections perfectly until they are deployed

Can we actually ever understand clearly enough what climate modification does to be able to deploy it?

“We’ll never understand the consequences of stratosphere injections perfectly until they’re deployed”, says Wieners. “But we don’t know what the exact consequences of global warming itself are either. The question is how you weigh these uncertainties up against each other. Many people see non-intervention as the default option, and intervention as the departure from the norm that you have to justify. But perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether something that we don’t do, which causes whole islands in the ocean to disappear, is also a choice that we need to think very carefully about.”

I recently read an intriguing tweet”, says Wieners. “What’s the good of knowing exactly what the impact will be at local level? Because the more you know, the more you trigger not in my backyard emotions and the more potential there is for conflict. I don’t completely agree with this but it’s an interesting thought.”

“In my view that’s precisely why doing nothing is seen as the default option”, says Oomen. “If we’re going to deploy climate modification, the issue of responsibility is quite different. A particular form of power centralisation has to be created around that system, which we don’t have at the moment. Then, someone can be held accountable for the consequences, which is not the case when you do nothing. That will be a totally different thing.”

They both decide that they need to start by trying to understand each other’s points of view better and by keeping each other informed.

Just as they’re putting on their coats to go home, Oomen remembers something else. “We mustn’t fixate on the targets. It’s about seeing what the consequences of global warming are and then weighing what needs to be done. Nobody has said that the consequences at 2 degrees of warming will be so terrible that you will need to deploy climate modification, it may not be until far later than that.”

Wieners: “Or sooner, at 1.5 degrees. But you’re right, whether or not the climate targets are achieved should not be related.”

This article is written by Laura Wisman and published on March 21 on Claudia Wieners is a climate physicist and Jeroen Oomen is a political scientist. Both work with the strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability at Utrecht University.