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Climate science: not just about science anymore

Many scientists (and journalists, for that matter) argue that their job is to seek and deliver knowledge. They don't have much power over how people use it. Climate change historian James Rodger Fleming opened the Saturday morning symposium, "Can Geoengineering Save us from Global Warming?" He suggests that his next book on the subject ought to be called Losing It, because climate change scientists long ago lost control over the discourse on the subject.

Case in point: geoengineering. With international measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions still suffering from political inertia, the U.S. and U.K., at least, are beginning to consider engineering fixes for climate change. These fixes include things like pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere or seeding clouds to reflect more sunlight, and dumping iron into the oceans to encourage the growth of plankton that suck carbon dioxide out of the air and convert it to biomass.

Quite tantalizing, the prospect of an elegant technological fix for a worldwide environmental disaster. But all of the geoengineering schemes currently under consideration have considerable drawbacks and limitations, the biggest being massive uncertainty. It'll take loads more good studies to get really solid evidence on how well they could work. Many geoengineering researchers are clamoring for political leadership and funding to support further investigation. But what kind of a message does a major geoengineering research effort send to the scientific community and the public at large?

It might cement the seriousness of the situation, said Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University. Sarewitz made a case for geoengineering in a Friday morning symposium entitled "Human Dimensions of Geoengineering." Searching for technological answers implies that the problem is real and that we're desperate for a quick fix. Yet the fix may stymie efforts to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to ongoing climate change, say the geoengineering skeptics. It may give us license to stick with bad habits, to continue with carbon crash diets and carbon bulimia instead of making long-term changes in the way we live.

But they all agreed that since climate is such an intricate global phenomenon -- picture a butterfly in the Northern California redwoods flapping its wings and shoving air currents round the world past a tipping point to generate a monsoon in Asia -- any effort to control climate must be an international one. The research itself might need government leadership or a major benefactor (Gates, anyone?) to spearhead it. And if we do the research and discover that our best possible simulation shows excellent results in most parts of the world, and long-lasting drought and famine in India and Brazil, do we and how do we convince India and Brazil to take one for the team?

Considering the decades that international climate change accords have spent mired in political mud, the prospects of geoengineering becoming a large-scale reality anytime soon are pretty grim.

We trust scientists because they can make things happen, said Harvard's Sheila Jasonoff in a Friday session about scientific integrity. Well, scientists, especially climate scientists, can't always make things happen anymore. At least, not without a lot of help.