Climate by Design? Special Issue Pays Tribute to Paul Crutzen for his Contribution to Climate Engineering Research

The idea of intervening in the global climate to reduce the risks of climate change emerged several decades ago. But it was not until 2006 that climate engineering research really took off, following the publication of a paper in the journal Climatic Change by Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, Paul Crutzen. The paper sparked an unprecedented surge of interest in climate engineering within the scientific community and heightened awareness among policymakers and the general public. A special issue of the American Geophysical Union’s journal, Earth’s Future, has now been published to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Crutzen’s paper. Organised by IASS researchers Miranda Boettcher and Stefan Schäfer, the issue brings together authors from diverse disciplines to reflect on the state of current research and potential future developments in the field of geoengineering.

Paul Crutzen © IASS; Foto - D. Ausserhofer Paul Crutzen © IASS; Foto - D. Ausserhofer

Research must address public concerns

“This special issue offers a unique opportunity for the readers around the world – both in and outside academia – to take stock of geoengineering research developments since 2006, and to reflect upon the roles of science and society in future research and discussion of the approaches,” explains IASS Director Mark Lawrence. In an article co-authored with Paul Crutzen, Lawrence argues that scientists must take an active role in the public debate on climate engineering, as a means of ensuring that research on the pitfalls and promises of climate engineering is conducted in a responsible way.

Several articles in this special issue consider the challenge of advancing a research agenda to deliver robust findings on the climate-relevant impacts of climate engineering while minimising the risks to people and the environment. David Keith and Peter Irvine from Harvard University analyse the regional impacts of deploying climate engineering technologies. They offer the hypothesis that Solar Radiation Management (SRM) – whereby solar radiation is reflected back into space by sulfate particles injected into the atmosphere, for example – could be deployed in a way that reduces the global risks of climate change without making any country or group of countries worse off. Previous research findings, they suggest, lend plausibility to this hypothesis.

Keith and Irvine argue that research has thus far focussed primarily on the capacity of SRM to completely offset the climate impacts of elevated greenhouse gas concentrations – a hypothesis that is now widely considered to have been disproved and which, the authors note, is in any case irrelevant to the choices faced by policymakers. Climate engineering cannot substitute for a reduction in CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, policymakers need options with the capacity to minimise the harmful impacts of previous emissions. The hypothesis formulated by Keith and Irvine might therefore provide a useful instrument for the organisation of future research activities.

How does climate engineering research impact climate policy?

In their contribution, Pablo Suarez and Marten van Aalst from the Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre explore the humanitarian dimensions of climate engineering impacts. They call on researchers to develop a management framework to ensure that the interests of the most vulnerable are considered and that the risks to their well-being posed by climate engineering are minimised. Other aspects discussed in this special issue of Earth’s Future include the role of models and simulations, and the potential for advancements in climate engineering research to put a damper on efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

“Many of these issues were raised by Crutzen in his 2006 paper, and this collection underscores the prescience of his insights. For example, Crutzen called on the science community to undertake extensive research on climate engineering and to break the taboo surrounding the topic, but he also warned against the misuse of climate engineering to compensate for inadequate climate policy,” comments Miranda Boettcher. The articles collected here reflect the breadth and depth of research on the societal and political dimensions of climate engineering over the last decade. This broad scope, Boettcher and Schäfer note in their introduction, is a defining feature of climate engineering research.

At the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, a group of social scientists is studying how the interactions of a range of actors, agendas, and bodies of knowledge are shaping the development of climate engineering as an idea, a discourse, and a policy option. This research aims to create a better understanding of how key challenges of the Anthropocene are negotiated and navigated in contemporary societies. Scientists, policymakers, and representatives of civil society organisations will come together to discuss the opportunities and risks of climate engineering research at the Climate Engineering Conference 2017: Critical Global Discussions (CEC17). The conference, which is organised by the IASS in cooperation with several partners, will take place in Berlin on 9 – 12 October 2017.

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20.01.2017