Geoengineering, hailed in some circles as a potential technofix to the climate change crisis, has taken a step closer to going mainstream.
The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a rare joint subcommittee hearing on November 8, only the second ever congressional hearing of its kind on the topic (the first was held in 2009). The committee invited expert witnesses to discuss the status of geoengineering research and development. Geoengineering is a broad term encompassing sophisticated scientific techniques meant to reverse the impacts of climate change or pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
Ironically, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is chaired by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith – a climate science denier who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from ExxonMobil throughout his political career. In fact, Smith actually mentioned “climate change” in his opening remarks for the hearing, in discussing his interest in geoengineering.
“As the climate continues to change, geoengineering could become a tool to curb resulting impacts,” said Smith, who recently announced he will not run for relection in 2018. “Instead of forcing unworkable and costly government mandates on the American people, we should look to technology and innovation to lead the way to address climate change. Geoengineering should be considered when discussing technological advances to protect the environment.”
In the past, Smith has denied climate change in stark terms, referring to those who believe in climate science as “alarmists” in a 2015 op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal.
“Climate alarmists have failed to explain the lack of global warming over the past 15 years,” Smith said at the time. “They simply keep adjusting their malfunctioning climate models to push the supposedly looming disaster further into the future.”
Smith has since pivoted to less skepticism about the science, saying at a March 2017 congressional hearing that “climate is changing and humans play a role” and that it’s now just a question of the “extent” to which human activity is the culprit (it is).
So perhaps geoengineering, labeled by its critics for years now as a false solution to the climate crisis, will be a “pivot” of sorts for converted deniers and their bankrollers?
Climate change talk off the table
U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment for the House Science Committee, explicitly took climate change debate off the table at the November 8 hearing, stating that conversation should only center around the future of geoengineering research.
“The purpose of this hearing is to discuss the viability of geoengineering and any early-stage research associated with this approach,” said Biggs. “The hearing is not a platform to further the debate about climate change. Instead, its aim is to explore approaches and technologies that have been discussed in the scientific community and to assess the basic research needed to better understand the merits of these ideas.”
Those testifying followed suit, with a consensus reached that a governance framework must be created to regulate geoengineering research and potential future deployment. The presenters all pushed the idea of geoengineering techniques such as solar radiation management, cloud seeding, and marine cloud brightening.
Geoengineering, according to its critics, is a distraction from the actual challenge of halting dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent runaway climate change. Critics also say the approach is a potential danger in and of itself because its techniques are a literal re-engineering of the atmospheric system, with unpredictable side effects.
“Geoengineering offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely,” wrote Klein in 2012 in The New York Times. “And then there is the fear. Every week seems to bring more terrifying climate news, from reports of ice sheets melting ahead of schedule to oceans acidifying far faster than expected.”
DeSmog has also covered a proposed version of geoengineering called biochar in a multi-part investigative series, noting that much of the research on the topic so far has been funded by companies such as ConocoPhillips, Cenovus, ExxonMobil, and others. Exxon, in fact, studied geoengineering at its research campus in Annandale, New Jersey, in the 1990s while also funding climate change denial.
‘Not a silver bullet’
For now, even geoengineering proponents have become spooked over the interest climate science deniers have started showing in geoengineering. On the same day as the House Science Committee hearing, 24 researchers delivered a letterexpressing concern about the premise of the congressional hearing and what could arise from it moving forward.
“Geoengineering is not a silver bullet, and treating it as one could greatly increase already severe climate change risks,” they wrote to the committee. “While further research could help address questions about the proposed technologies’ efficacy, risks, and cost-effectiveness, we already know that geoengineering, including solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal approaches, can at best be a supplement to reducing sources of greenhouse gas emissions and increasing our ability to cope with the effects of climate change.”
Included among the 24 scientists is Harvard’s pioneering geoengineering researcher David Keith, who has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of geoengineering within academia. Speaking as an individual, Keith also recently communicated his apprehension about the Trump administration potentially taking an unscrupulous interest in pushing geoengineering.
“In some ways the thing we fear the most is a tweet from Trump saying ‘Solar geoengineering solves everything – it’s great! We don’t need to bother to cut emissions,’” Keith said at a November 7 forum. “That would just really make it hard to proceed in a sensible way.”
In fact, those close to the Trump administration, which is rife with climate science deniers, have shown some interest in geoengineering to a degree not seen in the Obama administration. Yet whether President Donald Trump is willing to finance geoengineering research to the tune of $5-10 million per year, as proposed by one hearing witness, remains to be seen.