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21/10/2014

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Talking about geoengineering

Peter Hurrell reports on dialogue

What should we do if international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fail? We might need a Plan B, a way to counteract the effects of climate change. Some people have suggested that geoengineering – the deliberate large-scale manipulation of our environment - will provide the answer. As it could affect the environment we all share, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), working with Sciencewise-ERC, asked members of the public for their views on geoengineering before deciding what research to fund.

The conversation took the form of a deliberative public dialogue. In March this year, around ninety members of the public came to workshops in Birmingham, Cardiff and Cornwall to discuss geoengineering. Few of the participants had heard of the subject before they attended the workshops. This wasn’t surprising, as the phrase has only appeared relatively recently, but it did leave us with the challenge of explaining it to participants without biasing their views.

Support in principle

At the workshops, participants found out about nine different geoengineering concepts and had a chance to quiz NERC scientists about the pros and cons of each. They also heard from legal experts, social scientists and humanitarian groups. In return, NERC learned what the public thought of potential geoengineering research, and more importantly, why they held those views.

The people who attended the dialogue workshops supported geoengineering research in principle. They preferred technologies that removed CO2 from the atmosphere rather than those that cooled the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space, although they recognised the need for more research on all of the ideas they discussed.

Reasons for support

The project also allowed us to explore why people hold the views they do, rather than just finding out what they thought. One of the most important principles to emerge was that people liked the technologies that mimic natural processes, and had more concerns over less natural approaches. For example, participants liked the idea of planting trees to remove CO2 from the air. Cloud whitening was the favoured method to reflect sunlight as it uses sea water, rather than adding potential pollutants to the atmosphere, and resembles natural cloud formation processes.

Another important principle was that geoengineering needs to be carried out alongside efforts to reduce our CO2 emissions. The participants felt it made no sense to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or reduce global temperatures when we were still emitting large amounts of CO2. In the words of one participant, this would be ‘like getting a rabbit, letting it go, and then catching it again. Why not just not let it out in the first place?’

Members of the public made no distinction between scientific and ethical issues when they made their decisions. The idea that we don’t have the right to interfere with complex ecosystems without first understanding the potential consequences was not just a scientific question for them, but was framed as an ethical issue about taking responsibility for our actions. Similarly, participants felt that any negative effects should be spread evenly, and that before any decisions are made we need to talk to as many people as possible from around the world.

Using the results

This information has already had an impact. Two projects recently approved for funding by EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and NERC will build on the outputs from the dialogue.  The lessons we’ve learned from the dialogue complement the usual scientific and policy information we use. Ultimately, this will help us make better-informed decisions and communicate more effectively when we think about what geoengineering research to fund in future.

You can find out more about the public dialogue on geoengineering on the NERC website: http://www.nerc.ac.uk/about/consult/geoengineering.asp

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Peter Hurrell
Peter Hurrell works for the Knowledge Exchange Team at the Natural Environment Research Council
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