You can almost see them holding their noses, cringing, while sticking their toe into the waters of climate system geoengineering. But the American Meteorological Society (AMS) has done just that with a conservative and cautious policy statement emphasizing the “last resort” nature of the issue.

Emphasizing geoengineering – which it describes as “deliberately manipulating physical, chemical, or biological aspects of the Earth system” – as one leg of a three-legged stool (along with adaptation and mitigation), the group in a July position paper says such efforts could “offer strategies of last resort if abrupt, catastrophic, or otherwise unacceptable climate-change impacts become unavoidable by other means.”

But the statement immediately steps back, urges cautions:

  • It is still unclear whether large-scale geoengineering “would produce significant benefits, or whether those benefits would substantially outweigh the detriments”.
  • Such steps could have “considerable potential to trigger adverse and unpredictable consequences.”

Pointing to possible “global benefits” coming at the expense of “adverse local impacts” involving issues like altered storm tracks and precipitation patterns, the statement cautions, for instance, that “the consequences of reflecting sunlight would almost certainly not be the same for all nations and peoples, thus raising legal, ethical, diplomatic, and national security concerns.”

It cautions too that an increased focus on geoengineering should not distract policy makers from “critically needed efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” or improve societal adaptation activities. Once developed, the AMS position paper cautions, geoengineering technologies “may enable short-sighted and unwise deployment decisions, with potentially serious unforeseen consequences.” It warns too that risks posed by increasing greenhouse gas emissions would remain, and efforts such as increasing solar reflection won’t help address issues such as ocean acidification.

HOWEVER. The climate change issue is “serious,” AMS’s position statement emphasizes. With global mitigation efforts “limited in magnitude, tentative in implementation, and insufficient for slowing climate change enough to avoid potentially serious impacts” …

… and with adaptation also likely to be inadequate …

It’s time to press ahead with “enhanced research” on geoengineering and potential unintended environmental effects. Historical, legal, and social implications need to be better understood, the group says, so that geoengineering at least could some day, if needed, “contribute to a comprehensive risk management strategy to slow climate change and alleviate some of its negative impacts.”

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