They’ve Banned Geoengineering—But What Exactly Does That Mean?

Back in the 1970’s, Chiffon Margarine ran a TV commercial with the tagline “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” (the goddess in question wasn’t happy that she mistook the margarine for real butter). In real life, scientists have learned that same lesson a thousand times over as they’ve come up with brilliant scientific solutions to problems like rabbit overpopulation in Australia or keeping food fresh around the world. In all these cases, the solution created new problems of its own — and in some cases, they’ve been worse than the original (margarine, it turns out, originally touted as a healthier spread than butter, is one more example). One of my favorite cases is the inadvertent fix for the mountains of horse manure that were piling up in New York City at the end of the 19th century, posing health hazards and generally stinking up the streets. It all went away with the invention of the automobile. But one or two new problems arose as a result.

Which brings us once again to the question of geoengineering, which is a deliberate attempt to cool the planet and counteract the warming effects of increasing greenhouse gases — by, say, spewing clouds of sulfate particles into the air to reflect sunlight back into space, or lofting mirrors into space to do the same or simply painting dark roofs white in a low-tech version of space mirrors. You can see more examples in this Scientific American article.     

But just as with these earlier schemes, there’s a danger that geoengineering to stave off global warming could cause unpleasant and unintended consequences. That’s why delegates to the International Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan issued a statement last week proposing to ban research into the technology, urging that “no climate-related geoengineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place, until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity.”

What does this mean, exactly? Nobody’s quite sure. As Science Magazine’s Eli Kintisch points out, the CBD’s rulings don’t have the force of law — and the U.S. hasn’t ratified the Biodiversity Convention in any case. As it happens, the House Science and Technology Committee issued a report, also last week, which discusses how federal research into geoengineering might be pursued. It wasn’t a rebuke to the CBD; Committee chair Bart Gordon (D-Tenn) insisted in a press release that:

This report is in no way meant as an endorsement of climate engineering. It is my intent that this report, and all of the Committee’s activities on this subject provide a forum for an open and honest public dialogue regarding the science of climate engineering.

Still, it hardly suggests that the U.S. is about to endorse any sort of wholesale ban.

But neither do the Parties to the CBD, which is an agreement that is aimed at preserving biodiversity worldwide. Despite a certain vagueness of language (what, exactly, do “adequate scientific basis” and “appropriate consideration…of risks” mean?), most experts who have examined this subject seem to think the ban won’t prevent small-scale local experiments from going forward — and no sane scientist would plunge ahead with major field tests without trying it on a small scale first anyway.

Not only that: scientists are actively thinking not just about how to pursue geoengineering, but also about what the ethical and moral implications of doing so might be. Last month, a meeting in Missoula, Montana addressed just these issues, and a major conference held in California last spring did the same.

Finally, while the CBD's ban has no legal force, it might stigmatize countries that violate it.  All of which suggests — especially given that large-scale geoengineering experiments will be relatively expensive to mount — that the technology is likely to move ahead quite slowly.

In this case, at least, we’re probably not going to be fooling Mother Nature any time soon.