As the U.S. House of Representatives held its first hearing on climate engineering it is becoming clear that the technology will lead to international governance.
On Wednesday the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and Subcommittee on Energy Hearing held the first House hearing on the controversial subject of climate engineering or weather modification. The hearing, titled “Geoengineering: Innovation, Research, and Technology,” brought together members of the House committees as well as representatives of think tanks, scientists, and researchers in the field to discuss the future of geoengineering research and whether the Trump administration should allocate funding.
The push for discussion of geoengineering from the Trump administration should come as no surprise. Back in January 2017, Activist Post reported that “the U.S. Global Change Research Program quietly recommended new studies looking into two specific areas of research involving geoengineering.” With the release of their report, the GCRP became the first scientists in the federal government to formally recommend studies involving geoengineering.
Participants in Wednesday’s hearing include Full Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), and Energy Subcommittee Chairman Randy Weber (R-Texas). Witness testimony came from Dr. Phil Rasch, chief scientist for climate science, Laboratory Fellow, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Dr. Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center; Dr. Douglas MacMartin, senior research associate, Cornell University; and Ms. Kelly Wanser, principal director, Marine Cloud Brightening Project, Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, University of Washington.
Before the discussion began, the committee members established a working definition of geoengineering. According to a 2013 congressional report:
The term ‘geoengineering’ describes this array of technologies that aim, through large-scale and deliberate modifications of the Earth’s energy balance, to reduce temperatures and counteract anthropogenic climate change. Most of these technologies are at the conceptual and research stages, and their effectiveness at reducing global temperatures has yet to be proven. Moreover, very few studies have been published that document the cost, environmental effects, socio-political impacts, and legal implications of geoengineering. If geoengineering technologies were to be deployed, they are expected to have the potential to cause significant transboundary effects.
In general, geoengineering technologies are categorized as either a carbon dioxide removal (CDR) method or a solar radiation management (SRM) (or albedo-modification) method. CDR methods address the warming effects of greenhouse gases by removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. CDR methods include ocean fertilization, and carbon capture and sequestration. SRM methods address climate change by increasing the reflectivity of the Earth’s atmosphere or surface. Aerosol injection and space-based reflectors are examples of SRM methods. SRM methods do not remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, but can be deployed faster with relatively immediate global cooling results compared to CDR methods.
As the hearing unfolded, Committee Chairman Smith acknowledged that geoengineering “could have positive effects on the Earth’s atmosphere,” but cautioned “we have a lot to learn.” Smith’s outlook illustrated his skepticism of man-made climate change, stating, “While we are not sure this is plausible, some scientists believe it could achieve substantial environmental benefits at a cheaper cost than regulations.”
Smith did acknowledge the “unintended consequences of geoengineering,” drawing attention to the fact that studies have shown altering the climate in one part of the world could have disastrous effects elsewhere.
“One concern is that brightening clouds could alter rain patterns, making it rain more in some places or less in others,” Smith stated. “We still do not know enough about this subject to thoroughly understand the pros and cons of these types of technologies.”
Supporters of geoengineering currently find themselves with a lack of public funding for these programs, as well as a skeptical public. This hearing was aimed at bringing the topic into the mainstream consciousness and potentially garnering support for funding. Chairman Andy Biggs mentioned the need for further study, stating “if in the future the government wants to actually apply the concepts and findings of geoengineering research, we must fully examine both the potential merits and potential pitfalls of this emergent field.”
Kelly Wanser, principal director of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project, also encouraged “governance and regulatory efforts.” Wanser emphasized that oversight should be “rapidly established.”
Joseph Majkut, Director of Climate Policy at The Niskanen Center, mentioned that “Congress has already given limited authority to regulate experiments intent on altering the weather, including changing planetary albedo.” However, Majkut noted, “at this point, those regulations are limited to reporting requirements.” Majkut called for Congress to implement “significant civil and administrative penalties” and potentially criminal penalties for violating the regulations.
“Congress might also consider whether to extend that criminal liability not only to such experiments originating within or over the United States, but also conducted outside of our borders that result in an impact on the United States,” Majkut stated. “Such considerations would need the input of the diplomatic and international community.”
The Niskanen Center is described as a libertarian think-tank aimed at influencing “Washington insiders,” as opposed to the public. The Center takes on issues like the environment and works to influence political leaders. In a recent blog titled “RIGHTLY GOVERNING SOLAR GEOENGINEERING RESEARCH,” Majkut and colleagues wrote about need for “small-scale field tests” and “a domestic regulatory governance structure for research.” Further, The Niskanen Center wrote that national governance structures might serve “as a test-bed for governance ideas” which could “seed discussions on international deployment” of geoengineering over the coming two decades.
The hearing’s emphasis on the need for domestic and international governance structures illustrates the uncertainty around how exactly geoengineering will affect neighboring nations and communities. The Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative recently released a statement in support of “well-governed research on geoengineering” and urged governments and other institutions to support the University of Calgary’s recent publication of a Code of Conduct for Responsible Geoengineering Research.
“Geoengineering is a matter for all society, worldwide, as it affects us all,” Carnegie wrote. “This means we need to hear many more voices than currently being heard in the geoengineering debate.”
While these debates have mostly focused on the thoughts and opinions of government leaders and political pundits, the majority of the world is being left out of these discussions. It is absolutely vital for elected officials to discuss matters of such import, but we cannot allow the politicians alone to dominate the conversation. What of developing countries, indigenous communities, and local populations? Their voices must be heard in order to fully assess the risks of geoengineering.
Do the governments of the world care about the will of the people, or will they push forth with their agenda regardless of public opinion or concern? These are important questions which need to be considered among any debate on the potential of engineering the climate of our planet. One way or another, our lives and future depend on the outcome of this scientific debate.
For a much deeper look into the history of climate and weather engineering, please see this.