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Time to Start Work on a Panic Button?

For two decades, the world’s governments have failed to meet their own commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas. As frustration builds among scientists, some of them have begun to argue for research on a potential last-ditch option in case global warming starts to get out of control. It is called geoengineering — or directly manipulating the Earth’s climate.

The idea sounds like science fiction, but it is not.

My colleague Cornelia Dean outlined the possibilities in this piece last year. As she reported, several methods might be used to cool the planet, though with potentially large unintended consequences. Perhaps the single most prominent idea is to scatter sulfur compounds into the upper atmosphere, mimicking volcanic eruptions and causing some of the sun’s light to bounce back to space. Other ideas include designing machines to capture carbon dioxide from the air and store it underground or in the deep ocean.

Most scientists who support this kind of research are emphatically not advocating that geoengineering schemes be undertaken now, and most of them hope society will never reach that point. But they do want a research program to quantify the potential risks and benefits, so that future political leaders will have some scientific basis if they ever have to make decisions on the issue.

Now comes an important new report that may increase the likelihood the United States will undertake such a research program. The Government Accountability Office, an auditing and analysis arm of Congress, found that no geoengineering scheme could be responsibly deployed today, given the uncertainties. But it also found that a large majority of experts it interviewed were in favor of research to narrow those uncertainties. And the agency did public-opinion research that suggested the American people would favor such research, too, while also being concerned about the potential harm.

The idea of a research program has drawn favorable commentary on the political right, even among people who otherwise question the science of climate change. Interestingly, some environmental advocates have also begun to come down in favor of research. “We have to have it,” said Rafe Pomerance, a senior adviser at a Washington group called Clean Air-Cool Planet. But in other quarters the idea of even researching geoengineering has been subjected to withering attack.

The G.A.O. report is an accessible summary of the issues as they are currently understood, and it outlines the potential ways the Earth’s climate could be manipulated. A short synopsis can be found here, the full report is here, and a five-minute podcast outlining the issues is available here.

The G.A.O. report was hailed by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington that is working on its own report on the issue, recommending details of a government research agenda. That document is due in October.

“The G.A.O. finding that experts and the public alike support a U.S. research program is welcome news because it indicates people are taking the issues seriously and believe research is needed,” said Jane Long, associate director at large of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who is heading the Bipartisan Policy Center task force. “Equally important, the G.A.O. report recognizes that a research program should not at all detract from on-going climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.”


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