Last February, the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee held a public hearing on the threat to the Arctic posed by global climate change (see Environmental Audit Committee Hearing in the UK, 2/25). At this hearing, members of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) appealed for immediate Arctic geoengineering to avert the disappearance of summer sea-ice, permafrost thaw, and a possible "methane bomb." AMEG's call received a cool reception at the hearing, and an official committee report released last week echoes this initial skepticism. On the question of geoengineering, the committee concludes:
Geo-engineering techniques for the Arctic at present do not offer a credible long-term solution for tackling climate change. Further research is needed to understand how such techniques work and their wider impacts on climate systems. In the meantime, therefore, we remain unconvinced that using 'technical fixes' is the right approach and efforts should not be diverted from tackling the fundamental drivers of climate change. (23, boldface original)
In public relations terms, the timing of this release was particularly unfortunate, since last week also saw official word from the the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) that Arctic sea-ice receded to the lowest extent ever recorded in September, a disturbing milestone that was widely reported in the scientific and popular press.
All this perfectly illustrates the wrongheadedness of AMEG's approach. By adopting a maximalist position of geoengineering deployment now, AMEG and its sympathizers left MPs no real choice but to reject geoengineering as a plausible strategy for coping with rapid warming in the Arctic. As indicated above, some members of the committee actually expressed willingness to support intensified research into climate engineering, but this of course is insufficient from AMEG's point of view, and, confronted with a demand to deploy immediately, parliamentarians unsurprisingly responded in the negative. As a result, geoengineering emerges tarred in the public sphere, at a tragically opportune moment that might otherwise have served to galvanize support for expanded geoengineering research.
This sequence of events hardly dooms the push for accelerated research, and indeed is unlikely to have any meaningful repercussions beyond the short term. Yet it does underline the need for greater political sophistication on the part of a small but vocal segment of the geoengineering community. More importantly, this episode underscores the continuing need for the cautious and sensible majority of the community to disavow alarmism, distance themselves from extreme proposals, and make the reasoned and right case for more geoengineering research now.