What have climate engineering boffins learned?

Three projects funded by the British government since 2010 to study the deliberate tinkering with the planet to counteract climate change, known as geoengineering, are soon to end. Today scientists presenting at the Royal Society in London announced some of their findings, took stock of some of their setbacks, and laid out the way forward.

“It’s been a roller coaster, for sure,” volcanologist Matthew Watson of the University of Bristol told ScienceInsider by telephone after the event. Watson led the SPICE project, which focused on sun-blocking technologies, like the oft-discussed spreading of sulfate aerosol particles in the stratosphere. Among the findings of his effort, he says, were that certain particles, including titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide, may harm the ozone layer as much as 100 times less than sulfates. The team also studied materials to use to build hoses to deliver geoengineering chemicals to high altitudes. (“At the pressures and temperatures we’re talking about, it turns out Kevlar would melt,” Watson says.)

A second project, called the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals, assessed a variety of geoengineering techniques including sun-blocking. Their published work included papers on the challenges facing approaches to whiten clouds to reflect sunlight, and how linguistic framing impacts public perception of geoengineering. And a third project, dubbed Climate Geoengineering Governance, focused on governance, law, and ethics, conducting a series of reports and workshops on the topic.

The scientists who conducted the work say they did more than write papers on the controversial topic—they forged new bonds between scientists. “We created a new breed of interdisciplinary researchers,” says climate scientist Piers Forster of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. He led the integrated assessment effort, which “bought together climate scientists, social scientists, and control engineers.”

The projects certainly had their share of challenges in the public eye. In 2012, amid public outcry, SPICE scientists had to cancel a planned experiment in which water vapor would be released by balloon 1000 meters above the ground. A variety of factors, including unexpected environmental regulations and concerns over intellectual property, contributed to the decision, Watson says. “I can’t explain how difficult it was,” he says. But Watson says the scientific output of his project made the ordeal worth it, and he hopes more scientists will build on the research he and his colleagues have done. “I’m pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he says.

“But there’s certainly lots more work to be done,” he says. The funding for all three efforts ends in March 2015. Watson lacks new funding to continue his project, though he says he would apply for more support if the U.K. Research Councils, which funded the three projects, were to develop a regular funding program for geoengineering science. Despite repeated calls by expert bodies like the National Academies and the Royal Society for international governments to fund climate engineering, only the United Kingdom and Germany have made longer-term commitments, and the European Union has supported a major assessment report.

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