An international survey – published on October 24, 2011 in the journal Environmental Research Letters – finds that people in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom largely support geoengineering research – that is research aimed at reversing climate change, should such a reversal become necessary. But, the survey shows, people are more cautious when it comes to the deployment of geoengineering technologies that would actually attempt to alter our climate.
Climate engineering – or “geoengineering” – is the process of deliberately altering the physical, chemical or biological components of Earth’s systems as a strategy to reduce risks associated with climate change.
According to the American Meteorological Association, proposed climate engineering techniques typically fall into three broad categories: (1) the removal of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, (2) reflecting sunlight away from the Earth and (3) other techniques designed to diminish climate warming and its impacts.
Climate engineering ideas range from mild to extreme. Some examples of mild climate engineering ideas include, for example, reforesting large areas of the tropics to absorb more carbon dioxide or installing cool roofs on buildings so that they will reflect more sunlight, thereby cooling Earth. Extreme climate engineering ideas include more controversial techniques such as fertilizing the oceans with iron to promote carbon sequestration (removing carbon from the atmosphere) or seeding the atmosphere with sulfate aerosols to promote global cooling.
In December 2010, three researchers from the University of Calgary, Harvard University and Simon Fraser University conducted a public survey to assess how widespread knowledge of climate engineering was. The survey consisted of 18 questions and was sent out to residents in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The responses received from 2893 people were used for their analyses. The majority of the respondents were from the United States.
People were more familiar with climate engineering than the researchers expected. When asked to describe climate engineering, 45% of the respondents provided a correct answer. The term ‘geoengineering,’ which is often used as a synonym for climate engineering, was found to be more ambiguous and difficult to define.
In response to a question about solar radiation management, 72% of the respondents said that they supported scientific study of the technology but support fell when subjects were asked if they would approve of immediate deployment of this technology.
Ashley Mercer, lead author of the study and doctoral candidate at the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary, stated in a press release:
I think this is the first in line of many studies that will show that solar radiation management intersects with people’s political and environmental attitudes in surprising ways. The results suggest that dialogue surrounding this topic needs to be broadened to include ideas of risk, values and trade-off.
Interestingly, both supporters and detractors of climate engineering shared similar concerns about the risks associated with the use of geoengineering technologies. Overall, many people were concerned that climate engineering could have unintended adverse consequences and that climate engineering efforts may distract from needed mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
David Keith, professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University and co-author of the study also commented in the press release:
Some reports have suggested that opposition to geoengineering is associated with environmentalists, but our results do not support this view. We found that geoengineering divides people along unusual lines. Support for geoengineering is spread across the political spectrum and is linked to support for science concern about climate change.
The study was the first international survey on public perceptions of climate engineering. The authors hope that their findings will increase the likelihood that people will be informed and effectively engaged in future climate engineering discussions.
After reading the study published in Environmental Research Letters, I’m curious – how do members of the EarthSky community feel about climate engineering – do you support climate engineering research? Do you have concerns about the use of geoengineering technology? If so, what are your concerns?
Deanna Conners is an Environmental Scientist who holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies. Her interest in toxicology stems from having grown up near the Love Canal Superfund Site in New York. Her current work is to provide high-quality scientific information to the public and decision-makers and to help build cross-disciplinary partnerships that help solve environmental problems. She writes about Earth science and nature conservation for EarthSky.