Geoengineering - the 'declaration' that never was may cause real harm

| 28th August 2014
Chile's Lascar volano in eruption. Some geoengineering techniques would imitate the cooling effect of volcanic dust to reduce global warming. Photo: Neil via Flickr.
Chile's Lascar volano in eruption. Some geoengineering techniques would imitate the cooling effect of volcanic dust to reduce global warming. Photo: Neil via Flickr.

Chile's Lascar volano in eruption. Some geoengineering techniques would imitate the cooling effect of volcanic aerosols to reduce global warming. Photo: Neil via Flickr.

It was a great story, writes Andrew Lockley - scientists signing up to a 'Berlin Declaration' imposing an effective 'test ban' on outdoor geoengineering experiments. Except there was no declaration, and scientists never agreed to it. The world's media got it completely wrong, yet the mud will stick - and may cause severe harm in the fight against climate change.
Global warming continues - for which we have no effective strategy in place. That is the story. But it is not what the media reported.

The Climate Engineering Conference 2014 (CEC-14) was recently held to discuss technologies for deliberately counteracting climate change.

These include Solar Radiation Management (SRM), for example, adding sulphates to the stratosphere like a volcano, to reflect sunlight; and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) techniques - such as planting new forests to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere.

These technologies would allow us to exercise a degree of direct control over the climate. Unsurprisingly, the potential exercise of this God-like power is highly controversial.

Advocates say we need to be deploying these technologies urgently to save Earth from catastrophe. For opponents, they are a 'get out of jail free' card that would allow a business as usual approach to the profligate burning of fossil fuels, and carry huge risks of their own.

This background of controversy was no surprise to conference participants, who are well-aware that wider opinion of geoengineering is split along logical and ideological fault lines.

Delegates' big surprise - a ready-made declaration

However knowledge of the necessary methods cannot be erased, so Pandora's box is already open. Tough choices have to be made about what will be permitted - from basic scientific research to full deployment.

Studying this new-found power is now an important academic endeavour, and both public and academic interest is growing rapidly. CEC-14 was the first public scientific conference in the growing field of climate engineering, and similar events will likely follow.

As an academic discipline, geoengineering is here to stay. As a potential policy option, it is being carefully and publically scrutinised by experts. But sadly, that's not the story the media reported.

What attracted journalists' attention - and astonished delegates - was having a controversial document thrust into their hands after one of the first plenary sessions.

Demanding yet more restrictions on experimentation

This text, which became known as the 'Berlin Declaration', was not a draft from the conference organisers. Instead, it was a ready-made edict, promoted by attendees from the Oxford Martin School - an offshoot of Oxford University, which concerns itself with the study of socially challenging technologies and trends.

This so-called 'declaration' demanded yet another review process on experiments. This would further restrict a field that is already so tightly regulated that almost no faculty researchers have managed to do any outdoor experimentation at all.

In the opinion of many delegates, its effect would be to impose a de facto 'test ban' on most geoengineering experiments.

Global warming continues - for which we have no effective strategy in place. That is the story. But it is not what the media reported.

The assembled academics were understandably rattled by these events. A fully-formed 'declaration' had appeared. It seemingly awaited only a nod-through before becoming a concrete piece of governance, forever associated with the conference.

Moreover the 'declaration' came against a background of much pre-existing restriction on experimentation. Obviously, scientists can't release a new superbug in a stadium, just to see what happens.

What's less obvious is that there is a complex system of approvals for many types of experiment. This ensures that both obvious and concealed risks are carefully considered, whenever potentially-dangerous research is proposed.

We need responsible research - not a ban

In practice, this means that even completely harmless experiments in a scary-sounding field such as geoengineering are often nightmarishly difficult to get clearance for.

As Cambridge University's SPICE project (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) showed, even squirting a bathtub of ordinary water out of a hosepipe can be pretty controversial if you say the 'g-word' anywhere near it.

Other examples of similar controversies exist, with Ocean Iron Fertilisation (OIF) trials being a notable example. In fact, perhaps the most controversial 'experiment' - which involved fertilising the ocean with iron - came from outside the mainstream scientific process.

Regardless of whether one is hopeful about geoengineering or not, it's reasonable to suggest that careful research might be a good idea. Without testing, we lack important practical knowledge, and without that knowledge, we have less ability to appraise the technology, or use it safely.

A test ban would be a very big deal indeed, especially if the banning text ruled out tiny, harmless experiments, as well as big, risky ones. Deliberately closing the door on scientific research would be essentially unprecedented, and this caused significant concern among delegates.

It's possible that some believed that a new tier of regulation would have the opposite effect, instead facilitating responsible experimentation with a clear and dependable public process. However, this was certainly not a view which was shared widely enough to result in general support for the draft.

Sloppy journalism distorting the truth

A small uproar ensured. When scientists are in uproar, it is often barely detectable to the outside world, as they are polite people. This fretting turned into a 'Town Hall Meeting' - an opportunity to criticise the proposals in a thorough, public way.

This would leave the proposers in no doubt about the strength of feeling. The real story should have been this effective demonstration of good governance. But that was also not the story the media reported. As a result of some sloppy journalism, the news hit the internet in a form that was utterly mangled.

The draft declaration was wrongly attributed to the Royal Society - a body which has produced what is probably the World's seminal report on Geoengineering. What the Royal Society thinks matters. The most influential scientific organisation in the World on the issue of geoengineering was now calling for a de facto test ban. Except it wasn't.

This newly-invented story also needed a soundbite, and the 'Berlin Declaration' was born - despite the fact that the text hadn't been declared, didn't originate from a Berlin group, and didn't contain the word 'Berlin'.

The name of this sombre-sounding edict was reported and re-reported, as the story took on a life of its own. All this happened without anybody declaring anything, and with the Royal Society having had nothing to do with it at all.

Exciting-but-false stories are hard to replace with dull-but true ones. The true story of the landmark conference and its sensible scrutiny process was relegated to article corrections.

Even the shining beacon of 'Science' magazine had to eat its words. But the original stories, not the corrections, are what will have had the most impact.

Meanwhile, they missed the real story

The Town Hall meeting duly arrived. Senior scientists voiced concerns about many things: how anyone would know what was or wasn't a 'geoengineering experiment'; why we needed to have a new tier of regulation on something that is almost regulated out of existence anyway; and why delegates from the Oxford Martin School had turned up at an international conference and promoted a pre-drafted text outside of the formal conference process.

As a result of this public, transparent and logical scrutiny, the proposal died - and nobody declared anything. This story of self-regulation is not as interesting as a formidable-sounding declaration. So that was not the story the media reported.

Without being declared, a 'declaration' is therefore no such thing. The grandly-misnamed 'Berlin Declaration' left the conference in the way it came - as just a piece of paper.

Despite this, the scientists left the conference just as tied down by the onerous approvals process as they always were. And still, global warming continues - for which we have no effective strategy in place. That is the story. But it is not what the media reported.

So is this all over? Possibly not - because bad reporting can grow legs and walk around. Even without a declaration, people may read and remember the stories, and not the corrections. They may decide that further regulation is A Good Thing. They may then join pressure groups because of it, ask politicians for it, and vote because of it - all in spite of the facts.

As a result, we may lack crucial information on geoengineering. It may end up being deployed in ignorance by future leaders - and may cause chaos as a result.

Let's hope that's not the story.



Andrew Lockley is an independent consultant and researcher interested in geoengineering. His current research focuses on the areas of ballistics for SRM particle delivery, methane geoengineering, and the use of computer games to research public opinions.


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