Geoengineering: in what possible world?

Geoengineering – the deliberate attempt to manipulate large scale elements of the Earth’s climate system to reduce the impact of climate change – has recently started to build momentum in scientific, policy and popular discussions.

Proposed geoengineering techniques have typically focused on enhancing carbon sequestration (either directly, by capturing carbon dioxide emissions, or indirectly, by stimulating oceanic phytoplankton blooms), or managing solar radiation (via the release of stratospheric sulphur aerosols, or cloud reflectivity enhancement).

The science of this is (to me at least!) fascinating, and can indeed contribute much to our understanding of the complexity of the planetary climate. For that reason I at least partly agree with those (such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson) who support such research.

Yet the question that must be asked here is a science communication one – could such projects ever truly gain enough public support to get off the ground? Would mass popular consent ever exist for the release of stratospheric sulfate aerosols to create a global dimming effect? Given the complexity and scale of the issue, should we even try to have a public dialogue on such options? Continue reading

Scientists: anti-political and arrogant?

The climate change movement may well be correct in their argument that every year counts in changing global processes. But in past years that has served as an excuse for not building the slow and remorseless mass campaign, deploying all the campaigning skills and rhetoric of older progressive campaigns (much of which, in style anyway, is being used by the anti-climate-change group). It has to abandon the idea that truth somehow communicates itself.

It’s fitting that this argument – by Crikey columnist and person-who-my-wife-accuses-me-of-having-a-man-crush-on Guy Rundle – came almost simultaneously with a recent national policy forum held by Universities Australia at Parliament House. Entitled ‘Climate Change: Bridging Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy‘, the forum was yet another in a series of disappointing events that singularly failed to bridge any gaps between science and society and between science and policy.

There were, of course, excellent speakers talking about excellent science in the forum; skilled presenters who could talk about the evidence for climate change and the great multiplicity of its effects. Anthony Hogan talked of some fascinating work the National Centre for Population Health and Epidemiology at ANU are doing on the mental health impacts of climate change; Jenny McAlister of the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water talked of how action is being taken in NSW government policy; Amanda Lynch of Geography and Environment at Monash University spoke intelligently on the scope for action that is available to us.

Yet despite what was on the whole interesting, excellent science, the forum gave the overall impression of what Rundle described in his eerily synchronous column as ‘elitist arrogance’:

… the great flaw in the climate change movement has been an elitist arrogance that is, at its worst, anti-political. Some of that is due to the asocial political naivete of scientists — ‘I mean, it’s obvious, why are these people being so stupid’ — some of it is due to the technocratic spirit of the age, whereby something is seen as a mere technical problem to be fixed, and some of it is due to the fact that the abstract/systemic nature of climate change ideas are most easily accepted by people trained in abstract-systemic thinking.

In essence, the forum was dominated by the idea of scientists asserting their priorities, devoid of any semblance of listening to the issues faced by politicians, journalists, or the public at large.  It was asserted, for example, that science should take the dominant lead in the policy formation process; that other sectors of society (journalists, politicians, the public) were obliged to accept and respect the knowledge of scientists. It was argued that the most important thing at hand was defending the place of science in society; it was argued that the public should respect the wonders of the peer review system.

Don’t get me wrong – I heard a lot of interesting and useful ideas at the forum. But I’m on the team. If we want to build a solution to the effects of climate change, then we’re going to have to stop preaching to the choir. Indeed, we’re going to have to stop preaching and start listening. We need to be open and transparent about how science is done, and we need to engage with everyone that will be affected by climate change in ways that matter to them.

Have a read Guy Rundle’s column. There’s a lot there we can use.

Images by flickr user Gora Gray and Snap Man, used under a Creative Commons license.