My Turn: Who owns the sky?

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Mark Twain quipped, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” What would he think of two scientists from Harvard — David W. Keith, whose field is applied physics, and James G. Anderson, atmospheric chemistry — who want to explore the possibility of combating global warming by lowering the temperature of planet Earth?

But first, a little background. Addressing the issue of climate change, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology, whose membership includes New Mexico’s Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, held hearings — one in 2009 and two in 2010 — inviting the testimony of scientists expert on the subject of geoengineering. Geoengineering is defined by the National Academy of Sciences as “large-scale engineering of our environment in order to combat or counteract the effects of changes in atmospheric chemistry.”

The main topics of the hearings were solar radiation management (SRM), that is, reflecting the sun back into space and carbon dioxide removal (CDR), that is, capturing the carbon that is already in the atmosphere.

To manage solar radiation, some scientists like Keith, a witness at the hearings, cite the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, the volcano in the Philippines, as a model because the tons of sulphate particles it spewed into the stratosphere cooled the earth’s temperature by 1 degree Fahrenheit for about a year.

However, as Alan Robock, a distinguished professor of climatology at Rutgers University, who also gave evidence at the hearings, points out, there were droughts in Africa and Asia that year too.

According to The Guardian, Keith and Anderson want to imitate the volcano in a field experiment that “will take place within a year and involve the release of tens or hundreds of kilograms of particles to measure the impacts on ozone chemistry and to test ways to make sulphate aerosols the appropriate size.” The Guardian says the geoengineers plan to spray these sulphates from a “balloon flying 80,000 feet over Fort Sumner, New Mexico.”

The New York Times in its Green blog also reports on this “first-of-its-kind field experiment to test the risks and effectiveness of a geoengineering technology for intervening in the earth’s climate.” It too reports that the experiment would be “conducted from a balloon launched from a NASA facility in New Mexico.” But it describes the geoengineering experiment as “tiny.”

Robock also says there can be no small experiments from which you can learn anything. He says to get “above the noise of chaotic weather variations, the injection of stratospheric particles would have to be so large that it would be indistinguishable from deployment of geoengineering.” But then you would be too late to avoid the risks: you would have experimented permanently.

Bart Gordon, chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology, concluded the hearings by warning that there needs to be more research, especially on unintended consequences, before any of the ideas put forth by the scientists who testified are implemented.

Since the effects of climate warming are global, he recognized the need for bipartisan, transparent, open, and cooperative international regulation of the research. Congressman Lujan concurred with “putting on the brakes” because further studies are needed.

To my e-mail to Dr. Keith to ask if the descriptions of his experiments were true, he replied: “As I believe the NY Times report made clear we are in the very early stages of planning an experiment and have yet to choose a location or submit a proposal. The reports about New Mexico that originated with the Guardian were incorrect.” But what about the report in The New York Times?

The New York Times says Drs. Keith and Anderson expected to have their proposal written by the end of 2012 and that they would be seeking public funding, which, if they receive it, would allow them to proceed with the experiment.

The likely federal agency they would work with would be NASA, which can send up experiments into the stratosphere in balloons from its field at Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Perhaps Keith is guarding the why and where of his experiment because he wants to head off protests against it.

We must ask by what right geoengineers feel free to experiment with the sky that all of us living things on earth — animals, trees and plants, and people — share? Sulphates sent into the stratosphere eventually come down as acid rain or snow. Who owns the sky? Or, as a book with the title of that very question discusses, shouldn’t the sky be held in a public trust?

Suzy Kane is a resident of Taos County.

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