Geoengineering Gets a Hearing in Congress -- and in the U.K., Too

Last Updated Nov 6, 2009 7:28 PM EST

Geoengineering -- the concept of deliberately manipulating the earth's climate system to counteract climate change -- made its debut in Congress this week, which I suppose makes it officially "mainstream."

The House's Committee on Science and Technology held a hearing on geoengineering -- the first serious congressional review of the subject, according to committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.

An equivalent committee within the UK's House of Commons will hold similar hearings as part of a partnership with the U.S. Congress.

Gordon stressed the hearings should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of any geoengineering activity and its timing was unrelated to pending negotiations in Copenhagen.

"But this issue is too important for us to keep our heads in the sand. We must get ahead of geoengineering before it gets ahead of us, or worse, before we find ourselves in a climate emergency with inadequate information as to the full range of options," Gordon said in a statement.
So, a hearing is a hearing. It certainly does not mean anything is going to happen. It's not an endorsement. And it's probably beneficial to review geoengineering, if only to discard it as a horrible idea.

Several experts testified, most of them stressing that geoengineering needs research, research, research; it is poorly understood; poses all sorts of ethical, political and scientific questions; and that it is NOT a magic bullet. They also discussed the need to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions first, and to only use geoengineering as a short-term emergency measure.

As MIT's Technology Review notes, one of the most popular geoengineering ideas is to shade the earth with a haze of sulfate particles in the upper atmosphere, a concept that was discussed during the hearing.

James Fleming, professor and director of science, technology and society at Colby College, brings up this very idea and points out some of the problems. For one, it may not fully offset global warming. It may have unwanted side effects -- like say, impact rainfall -- that could be unwelcoming to other nations.

His most powerful point was that while the heating effect of the major greenhouse gases is well known, the level of scientific understanding of the cooling effect of aerosols ranges from "low" to "very low."

So, in the end, we could end up creating even more problems than we had before.