Britain’s Royal Society to study climate “geoengineering”

An interesting editorial in The Guardian by a member of Britain’s Royal Society, the country’s national academy of science, announced — with a bit of modesty bordering on self-skepticism — plans to look into “geoengineering” schemes to combat climate change: The Royal Society has set up a study group on geoengineering climate. Without the answers ...

586260_090501_mushrooms2.jpg
586260_090501_mushrooms2.jpg

An interesting editorial in The Guardian by a member of Britain's Royal Society, the country's national academy of science, announced -- with a bit of modesty bordering on self-skepticism -- plans to look into "geoengineering" schemes to combat climate change:

The Royal Society has set up a study group on geoengineering climate. Without the answers there will be no way to take sensible decisions on this issue, based on evidence and facts rather than beliefs and suppositions (either for or against the idea). It may well be that our study will conclude that such schemes are not feasible, or too costly, have serious side-effects, or are too difficult to control. But it may not; and it is likely that we will need a lot more information before we can really decide."

After this rather remarkable bit of don't-get-your-hopes-too-high-ism, John Shepherd, the author, gets around to defining just what geoengineering means:

An interesting editorial in The Guardian by a member of Britain’s Royal Society, the country’s national academy of science, announced — with a bit of modesty bordering on self-skepticism — plans to look into “geoengineering” schemes to combat climate change:

The Royal Society has set up a study group on geoengineering climate. Without the answers there will be no way to take sensible decisions on this issue, based on evidence and facts rather than beliefs and suppositions (either for or against the idea). It may well be that our study will conclude that such schemes are not feasible, or too costly, have serious side-effects, or are too difficult to control. But it may not; and it is likely that we will need a lot more information before we can really decide.”

After this rather remarkable bit of don’t-get-your-hopes-too-high-ism, John Shepherd, the author, gets around to defining just what geoengineering means:

Geoengineering schemes for moderating climate change come in two main flavours. First there are those that aim to increase the amount of sunlight that is reflected away from the Earth (currently about 30%) by a few percent more. Second there are some that aim to increase the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere, by enhancing the natural sinks for CO2, and maybe even by deliberately scrubbing it out of the air. 

In other words, the Royal Society will be studying the possibility of reflecting sunlight away from the earth on a massive scale, and looking at new ways to sink CO2 into the ocean, or scrub clean the atmosphere. Pretty Jules Verne-seeming stuff, as Shepherd acknowledges:

If world leaders are unable to agree on effective action to deal with climate change …  we may in future be glad that someone took these ideas seriously. Seriously enough to separate the real science from the science fiction, anyway.”

What’s remarkable is that the Royal Society, founded in 1660, represents nothing if not the nation’s crusty scientific establishment. And while the author presents these schemes with much hesitation and ado, it does seem an indicator of just how much more urgent, and desperate, the discussion over climate change is beginning to seem in the U.K.  

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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