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March Geoengineering Confab Draws Praise, Criticism

Scientists and policy experts will meet in March next year for a 5 day meeting to hash out rules for conducting field experiments on the controversial topic of geoengineering, ScienceInsider has learned. Styled after the landmark 1975 Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA, the conference has drawn support from top climate scientists and environmental groups. But it also faces questions and criticism about its openness and the backgrounds of some of the organizers.

Yesterday’s hearing by the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee—the first by Congress on the topic—underscores the accelerating interest in geoengineering, the deliberate tinkering with the environment to reverse global warming. The March meeting aims to be a forum for “scientists with expertise in climate engineering together with experts on risk management, governance, and ethics," said marine biologist Margaret Leinen, president of the Climate Response Fund, a new nonprofit set up to support geoengineering research. The Response Fund has partnered with Nobel Prize-winning biologist Paul Berg, who organized the 1975 event at the Asilomar conference center grounds in northern California, where the March event will also be held.

Many scientists believe that small or medium scale field trials may be needed to understand the risks of large-scale geoengineering projects. "There's a very legitimate concern about whether there would be risks associated with the research itself," said Leinen. Starting on 22 March, she hopes to convene 150 experts to examine the risks of a variety of different geoengineering methods, ranging from growing algae blooms at sea to sucking carbon dioxide or dimming the sun with particles sprayed into the upper atmosphere.

Michael MacCracken, of the Climate Institute in Washington, D.C., is leading the meeting’s independent scientific organizing committee, which will craft a final document after the meeting. Other organizers include ecologist Thomas Lovejoy of the Heinz Center and Steve Hamburg of the Environmental Defense Fund in New York City, who called the Asilomar meeting “an important and thoughtful conversation about an urgent issue.”

MacCracken wants federal agencies to support field experiments on various questions. "I'd like to have a sort of checklist to be sure that best practices are being followed," he said. "We need to have this kind of discussion right now, while it's early." The international London Convention antidumping treaty is working on specific rules for ocean fertilization techniques.

Critics of the Response Fund and its conference worry about its ties to Climos, a geoengineering startup company started in 2005 by entrepreneur Dan Whaley, Leinen’s son. With Leinen as its chief scientific officer, Climos sought to perform ocean iron fertilization experiments and sell carbon credits it could show it earned.

Facing international opposition to the idea of selling credits for the controversial technique, the firm decided last year to morph into an ocean logistics company, with scientists doing the ocean experiments funded by charity, presumably through Leinen’s nonprofit, or other means. Whaley said he helped conceive of and launch the nonprofit, introducing Leinen to its fundraiser, Danielle Guttman. “Since then I’ve had no role,” he said of the Response Fund. Leinen said she no longer had “any financial interest” in the company, and Whaley agreed.

Since geoengineering involves techniques that could have global repercussions, say experts, it’s particularly important that any discussions about regulating the new technologies avoid the appearance of possible commercial interests or conflicts. These issues are particularly acute with commercial ocean fertilization.

"It would be better for people with less of an appearance of a conflict of interest [to] play this role," said Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, when discussing the Response Fund’s role. "There's a perception that you've got a fox in the henhouse—for-profit companies or their nonprofit surrogates looking at governance of geoengineering." Physicist David Keith of the University of Calgary in Canada  "welcomes" the effort but called Leinen’s nonprofit “nontransparent and appears to be closely tied to Climos, which was conceived to do ocean fertilization for profit. While I am happy to see profit-driven startups drive innovation, I think tying ocean fertilization to carbon credits was a sterling example of how not to govern climate engineering.” Read Keith's full statement here.