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GOP Embraces Geoengineering … Which Terrifies Geoengineering Researchers

November 8, 2017

Congressman Lamar Smith, who has relentlessly disputed the science behind climate change, now argues there may be ways to avoid the dangers of rising temperatures without overhauling America’s energy system.

“As the climate continues to change, geoengineering could become a tool to curb resulting impacts,” the Texas Republican said in his prepared opening remarks for a Wednesday subcommittee hearing on geoengineering, a blanket term for various technological means of deliberately altering the climate to offset the risks of global warming.

“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,” he added.

Researchers in the field have expressed growing concerns that the Trump administration or the Republican Party generally might attempt to do exactly what Smith’s remarks suggest: embrace geoengineering as a “technological fix” that sidesteps the need to slash greenhouse-gas emissions or change the energy industry’s practices.

In fact, scientists who have explored the potential of geoengineering techniques like stratospheric injection, cloud brightening, and cloud seeding have consistently stressed that at best these untested methods could reduce climate impacts on a limited scale while providing additional time to transition away from fossil fuels (see “The Growing Case for Geoengineering”).

But among other issues, researchers still don’t know how well geoengineering would work or what the negative side effects might be. It would also do little to address other massive effects of climate change, such as ocean acidification.

“Geoengineering is not a silver bullet, and treating it as one could greatly increase already severe climate change risks,” warned a group of 20 prominent scientists in a letter to Representative Smith and other legislators on Wednesday.

During his appearance at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference on Tuesday, Harvard professor David Keith warned about almost this exact eventuality. Were the GOP to embrace geoengineering technologies, a fragile coalition between scientists in this field and major environmental groups that have tentatively supported additional research could disintegrate, he said.

“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,’” said Keith, a signatory to the letter who has also done extensive research into the potential of geoengineering (see “A Cheap and Easy Plan to Stop Global Warming”). “That would just really make it hard to proceed in a sensible way.” 

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