Revealing Interview with Ethicist Who Withdrew from Panel, Equally Revealing Article by Panel Member on Report’s Dysfunctional Process
Earlier this week a panel of experts released a report calling for more research into geoengineering — directly manipulating the Earth’s climate to minimize the harm from global warming. This panel, put together by the Bipartisan Policy Center, inanely — and pointlessly — tried to rename “geoengineering” as “climate remediation.”
Geoengineering is not a remedy. No one should try to leave the public with any such impression.
Frankly, it would be more literally accurate to rename geo-engineering “smoke and mirrors,” as those are two of the most widely discussed measures for managing incoming solar radiation.
Climate Progress has an exclusive interview with Prof. Stephen Gardiner, an ethicist who has written extensively on climate change and geoengineering — and who withdrew from the panel earlier this year. I contacted him when I learned he had originally been on the panel. He confirmed “I was indeed originally on the panel.” He “withdrew in March of this year when it became clear to me that there wasn’t going to be movement on some of the report’s recommendations, and I wouldn’t be able to endorse them.”
I also interviewed a number of the leading experts on geoengineering for this post, including a panel member, Ken Caldeira. I will publish his response in full in a subsequent post.
As science advisor John Holdren reasserted in 2009 of strategies such as aerosol injection or space mirrors — called solar radiation management (SRM) these days — “The ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.”
I appreciate that since a serious mitigation effort appears to be non-imminent, people are casting about for other ways to avoid multiple catastrophes (see “Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery“). But geo-engineering without aggressive mitigation makes even less sense than adaptation without aggressive mitigation (see Caldeira calls the vision of Lomborg’s Climate Consensus “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story”). So I’m glad the panel stated upfront:
This task force strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e., enhancing the resilience ofhuman-made and natural systems to climate changes)
I don’t think it’s terribly surprising that a panel stacked with advocates of geoengineering research (and some actual researchers) ends up advocating for more research into geoengineering. A number of people I talked to raised questions about the composition of the panel and the lack of disclosure that some of the panel members have a financial interest in geoengineering research (see below).
Many thought the effort of the “Task Force on Climate Remediation” to replace the term geoengineering was particularly misguided.
The phrase “climate remediation” is almost as bad as the phrase “clean coal.” In both cases, it’s a phrase that reeks of spin and marketing. And while I can understand why Big Coal wants to push it, I think it was a mistake for this panel to choose this phrase. The idea, of course, is to make geoengineering — or, if you must, climate engineering — sound gentle and comforting. It is not gentle and comforting, it is a big, complex, morally-fraught, and dangerous idea, and attempts to disguise this with cuddly language are just going to backfire. And let me add that this is nothing new. Virtually every meeting and panel about geoengineering that I’ve attended in the last five years has started with a few hours of hang-wringing about what the “term of art” should be. It’s just silly. Geoengineering is not a fix, quick or otherwise. It is not a remedy. It is, at best, a way to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change and maybe a way to protect fragile ecosystems like the arctic while we solve the real problem, which is getting off fossil fuels and repowering our lives with clean energy.
Gardiner writes me:
As for ‘climate remediation’, I agree that it has its own defects. Nobody really thinks that SRM is a “remedy” for anything. And I’m also skeptical about whether large-scale and rapid CDR [carbon dioxide removal] would really be completely benign, as many people seem to assume.
The term “climate remediation” is not merely defective and inaccurate spin and marketing. It has zero chance of becoming the term of art because it is transparently defective and inaccurate spin and marketing. The fact that this Task Force actually ended up choosing this for its name and embraced the term throughout the report seriously calls into question the entire process and its output. As we’ll see, one panel member actually went public in a major science journal with a discussion of just how dysfunctional the entire process was.
Let me make clear, though, that I know about a third of the members personally and another third or so professionally — and they are generally very high caliber individuals, which is what makes this all the more head-exploding. This is really a cautionary tale.
Three of the panel members actually dissented on this point. David Keith and Granger Morgan and David Victor have asterisks (**) next to their names indicating:
These members support the recommendations of this report, but they do not support the introduction of the new term “climate remediation.
Yes, three members of the “Task Force on Climate Remediation Research” reject the official name of their task force and the report they put their name on. I wonder how many times that has ever happened.
Gardiner said he “can’t really understand what all the fuss is about when people argue vehemently against” the term geoengineering. He directed me to “Dan Sarewitz’s comments in Nature” — “The voice of science: let’s agree to disagree.”
Substantively, Sarewitz’s piece itself has little to recommend itself, since he tries to use the bizarrely fierce debate over ” climate remediation” to help discredit consensus-based processes like the one used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which is like comparing an apple (and a not very good one at that) with, say, half the world’s orange fields.
What is noteworthy, however, is that Sarewitz opens the window to the inner dysfunctionality of the panel. He notes the report title, Geoengineering: A National Strategic Plan for Research on Climate Remediation, and then writes:
The discussions that craft expert consensus, however, have more in common with politics than science. And I don’t think I give too much away by revealing that one of the battles in our panel was over the term geoengineering itself.
This struggle is obvious in the report’s title, which begins with ‘geoengineering’ and ends with the redundant term ‘climate remediation’. Why? Some of the committee felt that ‘geoengineering’ was too imprecise; some thought it too controversial; others argued that it was already commonly used, and that a new term would create confusion.
I didn’t have a problem with ‘geoengineering’, but for others it was a do-or-die issue. I yielded on that point (and several others) to gain political capital to secure issues that had a higher priority for me. Thus, disagreements between panellists are settled not with the ‘right’ answer, but by achieving a political balance across many of the issues discussed.
Well, that may be how this dysfunctional panel operated — and it would have to be dysfunctional to brand itself with such a transparently nonsensical greenwashing term that simply isn’t going to catch on and thankfully so, as Goodell makes clear.
But it is ludicrous for Sarewitz to write this kiss and tell in one of the most prestigious science journals in the world in order to help discredit that other famous “expert consensus” effort, the IPCC.
This isn’t the place for a full debunk of Sarewitz, but what he apparently misses is that the IPCC process is indeed dysfunctional, as I’ve said, but mostly because the way it deals with achieving consensus is to water things down to satisfy the least common denominator — not horse trading so that some small group gets to say something absurd so that another clique gets to say something absurd. Indeed, this report explicitly doesn’t use the IPCC process, where any member nation can basically veto any word in the final summary reports.
The IPCC ends up with generally reasonable science — but a serious underestimation of likely future impacts, a conclusion that the recent scientific literature has made all too clear (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).
In fact, had this report given every member a veto, it would have avoided the ridiculous euphemism of “climate remediation” and probably come up with a superior product. But I digress.
For the record, climatologist Ken Caldeira wrote me:
When I am putting my name on a scientific paper, that means I agree with everything in the paper.
When I put my name on a document like this report, it means that on balance I think this document will do more good than harm and there is no recommendation in the report that I am unable to live with. I conceive of it more like voting for some omnibus legislation where there may be some particular things that do not make me happy, but overall I think the report makes a positive contribution.
I was arguing that we should not issue one report, but two: one on carbon dioxide removal and one on sunlight reflection methods. If I had my way, there would be no reason to coin any term to refer to this disparate collection of possible activities….
I see the term “climate remediation” as aspirational: the goal is to try to remedy some of the causes or consequences of climate change. The extent to which such efforts can be successful is an open question, but there is no doubt that the environmentally safest path is to avoid emitting greenhouse gases in the first place.
I will publish Caldeira’s entire email to me this weekend.
The report itself says a new term is needed because, “Geoengineering is controversial—indeed, the term itself is controversial because it is both broad and imprecise.” Uhh, not quite. I’d say 99% of the reason the term is controversial is because the idea is controversial. Giving it a new name doesn’t make it any less controversial — and in fact the new term is more controversial because it smacks of greenwashing.
In any case, I can’t believe the panel members are thrilled with Sarewitz for this embarrassing revelation of their dysfunctional process. But now that he has done it, I do think the members ought to fess up as to whom it was a “do or die issue” to replace the relatively neutral and widely used term “geoengineering” with the inaccurate euphemism, “climate remediation.”
That’s particularly true because this is a lop-sided panel. It struck me when I looked at the members that it was very thin on the well-known critics of geoengineering. I first asked Prof. Martin Bunzl, who is Director of the Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Social Policy, for his comment on the panel membership. Bunzl gave a presentation at the February 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, on what he calls “the definitive killer objection to geoengineering as even a temporary fix,” which I reposted here.
He coauthored a major analysis in Science by leading experts on volcanoes and/or climate — along with Alan Robock, Ben Kravitz, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov — “A Test for Geoengineering?” (online here), which concluded:
Stratospheric geoengineering cannot be tested in the atmosphere without full-scale implementation.
Indeed, they found “weather and climate variability preclude observation of the climate response without a large, decade-long forcing. Such full-scale implementation could disrupt food production on a large scale” — for two billion people!
Bunzl wrote me:
I noted the makeup of the panel with disappointment when it was announced.
He then noted that he thought Gardiner dropped off. I asked Gardiner what he thought of the panel makeup. He wrote me:
I was concerned about the diversity of the panel (and said so). Primarily, I think that it is an issue that there has been a spate of reports over the past few years where the participants have been either strongly overlapping or drawn from a very small group, especially on the science side. This creates an appearance of national and international consensus on these issues that may only be skin deep. (And I was surprised that people like Alan Robock were not on the panel.)
I have emailed Robock to see if he was asked. Of course there are many reasons why people say no to panels. Still, this is a very controversial, emerging issue, and the Bipartisan Policy Center should have tried much harder for more balance. And it should have used a process that wouldn’t lead someone like Gardiner to withdraw (and someone like Sarewitz to tell tales out of school).
Goodell isn’t as worried about the panel makeup. He notes that the recommendations are relatively tame. He notes that David Keith and Ken Caldeira “are anything but wide-eyed geoengineering advocates.” I agree on that point — see, for instance, Caldeira tells Yale e360: Thinking of geoengineering as a substitute for emissions reduction is analogous to saying, “Now that Ive got the seatbelts on, I can just take my hands off the wheel and turn around and talk to people in the back seat. Its crazy…. If I had to wager, I would wager that we would never deploy any geoengineering system.”
Goodell then writes:
That said, as geoengineering moves into the mainstream, it’s more and more important to broaden the conversation, if for no other reason than if geoengineering is seen as some quick fix being pushed ahead by a clubby group of scientists and policy wonks, well, then it will (rightly) be seen as some taboo Frankenscience. And that will not be a good thing for anyone.
And he agrees the panel should have tried for more transparency. I asked, “Do you think the report should identify those members who have a financial interest in geoengineering research?” He replied:
Yes. Transparency and disclosure are vital, especially with an issue as dangerous, politically destabilizing, and ethically-fraught as geoengineering.
Finally, here is Gardiner’s overall assessment:
In general, though I’m pleased that the BPC report follows the Royal Society in recognizing that the ethical issues are important, I’m disappointed by the lack of explicit treatment of ethics, by the neglect of the point that geoengineering only gets on the table amid a context of wider moral failure, and in particular by the endorsement of a very limited “coalition of the willing” approach to international cooperation. The latter is especially problematic when a necessary condition for membership of the “willing” seems to be being well-resourced (scientifically and otherwise), and when geoengineering is a genuinely global and intergenerational issue that potentially affects the lives of billions of people, many of them poor and/or residing in poor countries.
The bottom line is that this report lost much if not most of its credibility with its process, with its lopsided nature and lack of transparency, and with its inexplicably inane decision to embrace the greenwashing term, “climate remediation.”
Geoengineering is not a remedy. No one should try to leave the public with any such impression.
In the end, I agree with Caldeira that I don’t think SRM geoengineering is going to be deployed on a large scale. More on that this weekend.
- Geoengineering “not a solution” to sea-level rise
- Science on the Risks of Climate Engineering: “Optimism about a geoengineered ‘easy way out’ should be tempered by examination of currently observed climate changes”
- Nature: Ocean fertilization for geoengineering “should be abandoned”
- British coal industry flack pushes geo-engineering “ploy” to give politicians “viable reason to do nothing” about global warming. Is that why Lomborg supports such a smoke-and-mirrors approach?
- Nature Geoscience: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred.