We must engage the public in discussions about possible geoengineering solutions, says Peter Hurrell
Geoengineering could change weather patterns, alter our local environment or, in worst case scenarios, irreversibly damage the ecosystems on which we all depend. So before researchers and policy makers go ahead with it, shouldn't we ask the people who would be affected by these changes what they think?
In early 2010 the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) did just that. We ran a public dialogue to help us understand what a small, broadly representative group of members of the public thought about geoengineering, and how they reached those views.
We found that people did not object to geoengineering in principle, but did have specific concerns that they would like scientists and others to address before attempting to put it into practice.
So just what is a public dialogue?
A public dialogue brings together members of the public with scientists and policy makers to discuss the ethical and social implications of newly emerging areas of scientific research. The dialogue process gives those involved a chance to explore not just what people think about a topic, but why they hold those views. Dialogues generally work well for complex subjects that may be potentially controversial, and about which public participants may not know very much before attending the dialogue workshops. So geoengineering was an ideal subject.
NERC's public dialogue on geoengineering, called 'Experiment Earth?', took place over several weekends in February and March 2010. We invited groups of 30 people, chosen to be representative of the local community, to workshops held in Birmingham, Cardiff and Cornwall. There, they were introduced to nine geoengineering technologies, and were given the opportunity to talk about them with each other and with scientific experts.
A week later, the participants came back for a second workshop. This focused on the ethical and social aspects of geoengineering, and gave participants time to discuss the implications of the technologies for themselves and for other people around the world. To ensure that the results of the dialogue would be useful to a range of different stakeholders we worked with scientists, policy makers, NGOs and people from industry to make sure we included a range of different viewpoints in the discussions.
The dialogue culminated in a final event in Southampton, where some of those who'd taken part could discuss the issues that arose at the first two workshops with senior people from NERC and other stakeholders. We also ran open access events at three science centres around the UK, along with an online survey. So what did we discover?
The dialogue participants did not dismiss geoengineering as a potential solution to climate change. They did, however, have a lot of questions which they would like scientists to answer before any geoengineering takes place. These include the potential side effects of the technologies, their controllability and reversibility, when they should be deployed, and how they could be regulated fairly.
Importantly, participants did not support the 'moral hazard' argument, which suggests that geoengineering would undermine support for other ways to tackle climate change, such as reducing our CO2 emissions or adapting to changes. As one participant at the first Cardiff workshop put it: "We should do both – mitigate and use geoengineering. People still need to remember to cut CO2." This was illustrated by another of the Cardiff participants when talking about one of the carbon dioxide removal techniques: "[Air capture without mitigation] is like getting a rabbit, letting it go, and then catching it again. Why not just not let it out in the first place?"
Participants also felt that we should focus our efforts on removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The alternative, reflecting sunlight back into space via solar radiation management (SRM) was seen as a 'sticking plaster', which did not address the ultimate cause of climate change: our CO2 emissions. When discussing the nine technologies, participants also tended to prefer ideas such as afforestation or biochar, as these replicated existing 'natural' processes. According to one person who responded to the online survey, we should use "natural processes so [they are] less likely to have unintended consequences on ecosystems". Of the generally disliked SRM approaches, cloud-whitening was the most popular as it was seen as closest to a natural process.
Throughout the workshops there was a strong international element to the discussions, as participants recognised the global nature of the impacts of geoengineering and recommended that future dialogue includes people from around the world. They also saw the need for international cooperation to regulate geoengineering effectively.
The public were keen to be involved in dialogue and wanted to influence policy, but felt they shouldn't be asked to make decisions about whether to support a new area of science, particularly when the science was still quite uncertain. In general, people wanted to be kept informed through the media about any future developments in geoengineering: one participant asked for "cautious progression, with lots of media coverage so we can see what's going on".
Some of the early results from the workshops were used at an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-led 'sandpit' event in March 2010. At a sandpit, a group of researchers spend a week together to develop a small number of research proposals. The geoengineering sandpit resulted in two projects, both of which include some level of public engagement. One of these will use the data collected during the dialogue as a starting point for further public discussions, ensuring that it's an ongoing process. This is an important part of any dialogue, since public views can shift as the wider context, such as media coverage and government policy, also changes.
The dialogue told us a lot about communicating complex topics like climate science to groups of non-specialists. In particular, some participants struggled to grasp the scale of climate change, highlighting the need for imagery that could communicate this on a human scale. The Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership is currently using these findings to think about how climate science is communicated.
The dialogues also highlighted the fact that most people have little awareness of the scientific process. As a result, we gave participants the chance to discuss with scientists how research works when they gathered at the final workshop in Southampton.
'Experiment Earth?' also had more direct personal outcomes. The scientists and other experts involved valued the opportunity to talk to people about their research, although the questions they were asked were often challenging. Talking with the public also helped them consider how they can better communicate their work to those 'outside the loop'. For their part, the public participants also enjoyed the process, and many said they had learned a lot about geoengineering.
For NERC, the dialogue has provided insights that complement the more usual scientific and policy information we use for decision-making. It will continue to help us think about how we approach geoengineering research, and how we communicate the aims and outcomes of that research in future.
The public brings an extra perspective on some of the issues surrounding geoengineering that can provide interesting and often unexpected insights. If you're thinking about geoengineering research or governance, we would urge you to take a closer look at the results of 'Experiment Earth?'.
Peter Hurrell is Stakeholder Liaison Officer in the Knowledge Exchange Group at NERC.
For more information about the public dialogues, including a video filmed at the Birmingham workshops, visit:
Image credits: DrAfter123 / istock