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Will Copenhagen Lead to Radical Climate Experiments?

If the summit fails, controversial geo-engineering projects may get a boost.

You won't find geoengineering on the official agenda at the climate summit in Copenhagen. But for anyone watching the trajectory of the climate change debate, the controversial notion of intentionally modifying the planet or its climate system to counteract the effects of global warming is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Attracting almost no attention, Russia may have already conducted the first-ever geoengineering field trial. And if the climate talks at Copenhagen fail, it could give geoengineering advocates the lucky break they've been waiting for.

While it hasn't been featured in the formal negotiations, geoengineering has been a significant sub-theme in Copenhagen -- the subject of numerous  side events, protests, and a documentary film screening. Robert Greene's  Owning the Weather, which aired here Sunday night in a venue off the spectacularly lit City Hall Square, paints the longstanding history of human attempts to control and modify the weather -- through anything ranging from rain dances to quack cloud seeding efforts and hail cannon fusillades. The film ends with the observation that we are moving ever closer to making this ancient dream (or nightmare, if you prefer) a reality.

Indeed, scientists say there is little doubt that we could bring about an artificial planetary cooling by, say, seeding the Earth's stratosphere with reflective particles, called  sulfate aerosols, that would act as an artificial global parasol and cool us down. Such an act would amount to mimicking the climatic effects of a large volcanic eruption, such as the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 -- whose 22 mile high stream of ash, subsequently dispersed across the globe, resulted in half a degree Celsius of global cooling over the course of the following year.

Granted, the unintended consequences of such an action (such as decreased global precipitation) might be significant. But, goes the thinking among some scientists, if we're facing a climate catastrophe -- if we're really going to bake; if Greenland is really going to go -- then wouldn't a few side effects be worth it to maintain our fundamental way of life? And the less that is achieved in Copenhagen -- the more agreements fall short of absolutely ruling out climate catastrophe by, say, returning global carbon dioxide concentrations to something like 350 parts per million -- the more attractive geoengineering sounds, at least as a last resort.

Perhaps the most lamentable indication that geoengineering is going mainstream is the fact that political conservatives and contrarians have increasingly begun to embrace it as an alternative to the central project of COP 15 -- namely, halting and then decreasing global greenhouse gas emissions. Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish environmental contrarian and infamous author of  The Skeptical Environmentalist, l oves the idea. So do Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of the bestselling  SuperFreakonomics, whose chapter on how we can address global warming through geoengineering (rather than emissions cuts) has been  eviscerated by environmentalists and some scientists due to its many inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, anti-geoengineering activists have begun raising hell in an attempt to stop this growing momentum in favor of climate tinkering, before it gets any stronger. They don't trust scientific hubris; they abhor messing with nature. This movement centers on the Canada-based  ETC. Group ( it stands for "Etcetera"), whose head, Pat Mooney, opines in  Owning the Weather that scientists are "warm, cuddly, and naive."

However, the mainstream climate scientists who are willing to at least consider geoengineering as a possibility constantly emphasize that such measures should not be an alternative to greenhouse gas reductions -- rather, they could serve as an additional safety valve. To that end, these scientists -- like  Jason Blackstock, a research scholar at the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis who, along with the British Royal Society, helped to organize  three geoengineering events here in Copenhagen -- support ongoing geoengineering  research, so as to determine with more precision what various types of interventions might do to the planet.

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