Some researchers in Britain are planning to test a system in October in which a hose held up by a helium balloon spews water into the atmosphere. The SPICE experiment (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Enginieering) is a baby step toward evaluating a proposal to cool down the planet by injecting sulfur particles high into the stratosphere where they would reflect sunlight back into space. This idea mimics a proposal made in Reason back in 1997 by physicist and sci-fi writer Gregory Benford and more recently suggested by Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures project.
Now a bunch of activist groups (congregated at the website Hands Off Mother Earth) is asking other groups and individuals to sign an open letter urging the British government to stop the experiment. Why? The letter asserts:
We believe that such research is a dangerous distraction from the real need: immediate and deep emissions cuts. Some of the global political and ecological dangers of stratospheric aerosol injection have been identified through modeling studies and examination of the impacts of sulphuric dust emitted by volcanoes. Those impacts include the potential for further damage to the ozone layer, disruption of rainfall, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions, and potentially threatening the food supplies of billions of people. Furthermore, emergent SRM [solar radiation management] technologies will leave high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, worsen ocean acidification and condemn future generations to continue a high-risk, planetary-scale technological intervention that is also likely to increase the risk of climate-related international conflict. The involvement of organizations and/or corporations associated with the military – as is Marshall Aerospace – increases that risk.
If this experiment is allowed to go ahead, many governments of the global South and many civil society organizations will conclude that the UK is not negotiating in good faith to reduce emissions, but is instead preparing to proceed down an alternative, very high-risk technological path. We hope you will make clear that is not the case.
What the opponents overlook is that this preliminary research is aimed at finding out just how risky this type of geo-engineering is. I suspect that one of the biggest risks they fear is that geo-engineering might actually work well. As Princeton Rutgers University environmental scientist Alan Robock has observed [PDF]:
"If humans perceive an easy technological fix to global warming that allows for 'business as usual,' gathering the national (particularly in the United States and China) and international will to change consumption patterns and energy infrastructure will be even more difficult."
The activists already assume that man-made global warming is a big problem. If that is so and there's a significant chance it might come on faster than is currently projected, it is just plain stupid to oppose research that could lead to the development an emergency cooling system for the planet.