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Tweaking Climate to Cool It Gets Serious Look from Scientists, Lawmakers

Altering the earth's atmosphere to control global warming is an intriguing strategy, but one fraught with unknown risks, a panel said recently. Scientists are collecting information about its prospects, but have much to learn about the side effects, said writers and a Congressional staffer.

Geoengineering, as the process is called, is the manipulation of the atmosphere in an attempt to mitigate the effects of global warming. It is seen as a companion strategy to carbon emission reduction and as a way to cool the earth quickly if needed. The most common technique studied today is the reflection of sunlight back into space.

But the concept is so new (70% of the public doesn't know what the term "geoengineering" means) and the results so uncertain that experts and policy makers alike are calling for a serious and critical look at all aspects.

"The quantity (of information) is far removed from what we need to move forward," said Christopher King, staff member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, when asked about the level of scientific inquiry about geoengineering's ramifications. King is the lead staffer for the committee's geoengineering work, which includes three hearings. The Government Accounting Office has also prepared reports on the topic.

Nonetheless there is so much carbon in the atmosphere which will warm the planet for years to come, the radical idea of manipulating climate is worth considering, the panelists said. "It makes the idea of the type of world we want to live in explicit," said Jeff Goodell author of "How to Cool the Planet."

Many scientists maintain that reflecting 2 percent of incoming sunlight back into space would lower the earth's temperature enough to compensate for the greenhouse gas-related temperature increase expected this century. Experiments in increasing the density of selected clouds over the ocean is showing some cooling effects on a local level. However, there is a concern that this technique, called "cloud brightening," deprives the earth's surface of sunlight could disrupt plant life.

Spraying sulfate aerosols into the atmosphers is another way to radiate sunlight back into space. The world unintentionally experienced this with the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. That eruption spread enough sulfate aerosol into the air to reduce global temperature by about 1 degree centigrade.

However, a NASA study noted that despite the temporary drop in global temperature, the eruption changed some climate patterns and warmed parts of the Northern Hemisphere. There are also concerns about the human health effects of the sulfur particles when they fall back to earth.

Interest is growing in geoengineering, even with its risks, because of the momentum of global warming. The carbon that human activity has placed in the atmosphere so far will stay there, inducing warming, for a very long time; about half will stay aloft for 100 years or more before being reabsorbed into the carbon cycle.

Even if society were to stop emitting carbon immediately, the emissions already there would continue to contribute to global warming, said Sam Thernstrom, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who has been studying geoengineering and climate change. "We cannot cool the plant by carbon emission cuts alone", Thernstrom said.

The panelists, speaking at the National Press Club, warned against expecting too much from geoengineering too soon. "This is a quick fix, not a perfect fix. It is a palliative, not a cure" said Thernstrom. Goodell described geoengineering as a technological fix to a political problem.

Thernstrom also critiqued geoengineering in terms of a "risk-risk trade-off," noting that the unknowns associated with geoengineering could pose dangers. "But uncontrolled global warming is very dangerous," he said. "Ignorance of geoengineering is the greatest danger.

However, the knowledge base is growing. Last month a conference on geoengineering was held in Monterrey. Referring to the strategy as "Climate Intervention Technologies," the conference covered the scientific, social and research aspects of the strategy.

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