Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Interesting Results from SPICE Stratospheric Aerosol Public Workshops

With the SPICE stratospheric aerosol research project now underway in the UK (see Research Moving Ahead in the UK, 7/3), a series of public workshops has been held to inform future funding decisions about the proposed 1 km pipe-balloon testbed delivery system. Initial results from these workshops have been released, and include some interesting findings. Perhaps most importantly, researchers concluded that "almost all of our participants were willing to entertain the notion that the test-bed as an engineering test – a research opportunity – should be pursued. Equally very few were fully comfortable with the notion of stratospheric aerosols as a response to climate change" (p. 24). Such views are to be expected, reflecting a tension between public support for scientific research in general, and popular unease with "exotic" technologies such as stratospheric aerosol injections. For the SPICE project, this signals a minimum level of public acquiescence to the pipe-balloon test concept.

One particularly intriguing result pertains to citizen views on governance of climate engineering. Among workshop participants,

A key concern was that international governance and regulatory structures be under development now, and not only in the event of full scale deployment, to help govern and co-ordinate research such as the test-bed and SPICE. Whilst not dismissing the importance of developing technical knowledge and proving efficacy in relation to geoengineering methods and stratospheric aerosols in particular, it was clear that our participants felt that funding decisions for both the test-bed and research stemming from the test-bed should be based as much on issues of governance and ethics, as on the science, engineering and technical knowledge (p. 24).

In other words, governance, policy, and politics figure just as prominently as science in the minds of informed publics. When it comes to climate engineering such as stratospheric aerosols, people want to know that policies, specifically international policies, exist to regulate research and development activities that might eventually lead to deployment. While this perspective conflicts with the bottom-up, norms-based approach to research favored by many in the climate engineering community, the capacity of top-down governance to reassure the public and anchor support for experimentation should not be overlooked.

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