Climate change: geoengineering goes mainstream

Pascal Lamy in 2010. The former Director General of the WTO now leads the Commission on Climate Overshoot, which examines how we will adapt to a warmer world.

World Economic Forum

Pascal Lamy in 2010. The former Director General of the WTO now leads the Commission on Climate Overshoot, which examines how we will adapt to a warmer world.

Peter Griffin is a freelance science and technology writer. He was founding director of the Science Media Center and founding editor of

OPINION: As the window we have to limit global warming to 1.5°C begins to close, many scientists and politicians are turning their attention to “global overshoot”.

They want to better understand the implications of exceeding the emission reduction targets that countries set at the Glasgow climate conference. We need to reduce global emissions by 43% by 2030 below 2019 levels, just to have a chance of staying within the 1.5C warming threshold.

Technically we could do it. But it is a colossal task. The realists assume we won’t be able to act in time and are considering plan B. They include a group of prominent world leaders, former presidents and prime ministers among them, who have formed the Climate Overshoot Commission to examine what we going to need to do to adjust to 2C or more warming.

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They are also investigating the potential of geoengineering systems to act as an engineering solution to reducing global temperatures. Solar geoengineering, which may involve cloud seeding or spreading sulfur particles through the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, is seen as the most promising method.

But there’s virtually no solid research examining whether it would work and what the risks and side effects might be. Geoengineering is considered difficult and scary, so we haven’t funded large studies to determine if it’s a realistic option.


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It’s starting to change.

“Any means by which we can mitigate this risk [of climate overshoot] needs to be assessed,” Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organization and a member of the Climate Overshoot Commission, told The Guardian last month.

“I think a global effort on geoengineering could work.”

Scientists are coming to the same conclusion, partly out of fear that a country, hit by the ravages of climate change, will go it alone in attempting to alter the climate. The American Geological Union said last week that it would form “an ethical framework to guide research and eventual deployment of climate change response measures.”

He wants to work with global bodies to develop some sort of governance overseeing geoengineering experiments and use of the technology. We have done the same for human cloning and stem cell research.

This does not give the green light to geoengineering. In fact, it could lead to a moratorium on geoengineering projects that research has found are too risky. But at least we now take it seriously.

Science columnist Stuff Peter Griffin.


Science columnist Stuff Peter Griffin.

Some climate scientists argue that by doing so, we weaken the urgency to reduce emissions. But there’s nothing stopping us from chasing deep cuts now while we also research whether geoengineering has legs.

“Good science takes years to develop,” says Holly Jean Buck, professor and author of environment and sustainability.

“If we postpone research to the 2030s, we could find ourselves in a world that has made uneven progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but not enough, with temperatures still heading towards 3°C. C warming.”

It’s not an unrealistic scenario. I want the best minds in the world to focus on all the options we have to deal with it.

About Norman Griggs

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