Geoengineering Research Receives Backing at House Science Committee Hearing

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Publication date: 
16 November 2017

Republican committee leaders expressed hope that geoengineering technologies could someday address climate change. Democratic members were more cautious, supporting research but emphasizing it should not be viewed as a substitute for emissions reductions or other approaches for combating climate change.

At a Nov. 8 hearing, House Science Committee members and four expert witnesses called for more federal support for geoengineering research. Support is needed, they said, to explore the feasibility of various geoengineering techniques and their potential impacts on the climate. However, most of those present cautioned that the risks and unintended consequences of any Earth system manipulation must be carefully weighed against the intended benefits.


A diagram depicting various geoengineering ideas that researchers are entertaining.

A diagram depicting various geoengineering ideas that researchers are entertaining.

 (Image credit – University of Leeds)

Committee members support research, but urge caution on implementation

“Geoengineering's potential is worth exploring ... These innovations could help reduce global temperatures or pull excess greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere,” said House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) in his opening statement, adding,

Instead of forcing unworkable and costly government mandates on the American people, we should look to technology and innovation to lead the way to address climate change.

Smith acknowledged it is not yet clear whether any geoengineering techniques will be effective and that researchers do not yet “thoroughly understand the pros and cons” of different interventions.

Energy Subcommittee Chair Randy Weber (R-TX) pointed to the promise of the geoengineering research and modeling efforts currently being led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and other national labs in collaboration with international partners. He called for the commencement of small-scale field tests to examine the accuracy of geoengineering models, which seek to predict how different interventions will affect the climate.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), ranking member of the Environment Subcommittee, expressed the view, also shared by the other Democrats present, that caution is warranted. She argued in her opening statement that researchers and policymakers should tread carefully while the risks of geoengineering remain poorly understood, and stressed that geoengineering “is not a magic fix to address the impacts of climate change.”

To bolster her point, Bonamici entered into the record a letter sent to the committee by 24 atmospheric scientists and policy researchers, asserting,

Geoengineering is not a silver bullet, and treating it as one could greatly increase already severe climate change risks. … [It] can at best be a supplement to reducing sources of greenhouse gas emissions and increasing our ability to cope with the effects of climate change.

Quoting from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s recently published Climate Science Special Report, Bonamici added that “[F]urther assessments … of climate intervention or geoengineering strategies … are a necessary step before judgments about the benefits and risks … can be made with high confidence.

In its 2012-2021 strategic plan released in January 2017, USGCRP for the first time called for the creation of a research program that would provide “insight into the science needed to understand potential pathways for climate intervention or geoengineering and the possible consequences of any such measures, both intended and unintended.” The USGRCP predicted “some types of deliberative climate intervention may someday be one of a portfolio of tools used in managing climate change.

Energy Subcommittee Ranking Member Marc Veasey (D-TX) argued in his opening statement, “Geoengineering is not the answer to 150 years of polluting our planet at an unsustainable rate,” and insisted that climate mitigation and adaptation should be the country’s top priority. Nevertheless, he also backed geoengineering research, adding that it is part of the full spectrum of research that the Department of Energy should support. He blasted the Trump administration’s proposal for a 43 percent cut to the DOE Office of Science’s Biological & Environmental Research program, pointing out that it sponsors research related to geoengineering.

Witnesses back dedicated research program, thoughtful governance

Phil Rasch, chief scientist for climate science at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, testified that the federal government likely supports less than $1 million per year in geoengineering research:

To my knowledge, the current funding is restricted essentially to a few university professors through the National Science Foundation. The rest of it is being occasionally supported by various agencies to stay engaged in activities like the research reports which you’ve heard about. But most of the other work that’s being done is being done through support of philanthropic organizations or for free on weekends and evenings by scientists who are interested in these things. It’s probably bounded by less than a million dollars a year, could be a few hundred thousand dollars a year of supported research directly for geoengineering.

Rasch called for a “coherent, goal-oriented” geoengineering research program “that includes modeling and lab studies, small-scale field experiments, and technology development and engineering feasibility studies, as well as considering societal needs for transparency and governance.” Such a research program, he said, could help policymakers better understand the role geoengineering could have in responding to climate change.

Rasch served on the committee of the landmark 2015 National Academy of Sciences “Climate Intervention” study that examined the technical feasibility and potential impacts of geoengineering. That study found that, while global efforts to address climate change should continue to focus primarily on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to impacts, certain geoengineering techniques hold potential and should receive more R&D investment.

In particular, the committee backed R&D on methods for removing and disposing of atmospheric carbon dioxide at scales that would have a global impact on reducing greenhouse warming, and called for a research program into “albedo modification,” in which sunlight and other radiative energy is intentionally reflected back into space to cool the Earth. The committee also called for “a serious deliberative process” to determine how geoengineering research should be governed and managed, given the range of unique considerations and risks in the field.

Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy for the Niskanen Center, argued in his statement that the potential benefits of geoengineering in addressing climate change justify further federal research funding. However, Congress should take the potential risks of geoengineering seriously, he said, by establishing a regulatory governance structure “to maximize innovation and scientific progress while protecting the public and environment from ill-informed experiments or premature deployment.

Kelly Wanser, director of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project at the University of Washington, added a measure of urgency to the panel’s call for a dedicated research program, pointing out that geoengineering options may someday be needed, but that technologies cannot be developed quickly. She stated:

It will likely take a decade of technology development, system modeling and process-level experimental research to determine if any options are feasible, and to understand them well enough to inform policy decisions. It may take another decade to scale any capabilities for deployment readiness. Work must commence soon to produce knowledge and options within a timeframe relevant to Earth system risks.

McNerney bill to call for geoengineering research studies

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), a Ph.D. mathematician and former energy engineer, expressed his particular interest in geoengineering during the hearing, summarizing the questions that more geoengineering research could help answer:

What tools are available? What are the technical feasibilities? What are the costs? What are the risks of the different approaches to avoiding catastrophic [climate] change?

McNerney said he is working on draft legislation that would direct DOE, in consultation with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NSF, to sponsor two National Academies studies on geoengineering research. The first would develop a research agenda for albedo modification techniques, and the second would provide guidance on governance mechanisms for the proposed research.

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