Nov 102010
 
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Moratorium on schemes to reduce global warming clashes with reports urging more research.

A last-ditch remedy for an ailing planet, or a reckless scheme that could be a greater threat to life on Earth than the problem it aims to solve? Opinions are sharply divided on geoengineering–potential massive interventions in the global climate system, intended to forestall the worst effects of climate change.

Last week, participants in the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) made their views clear at a meeting in Nagoya, Japan. They included in their agreement to protect biodiversity a moratorium on geo-engineering “until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks.” The moratorium, expected to be in force by 2012, isn’t legally binding, and given the preliminary nature of studies in the area it is unlikely to affect researchers in the near future. But some scientists fear that the CBD’s stance will sow confusion and delay at a time when governments and research groups are exploring how geo-engineering might feasibly be undertaken if global warming accelerates disastrously.

The CBD agreement coincides with the release of a pair of reports on geoengineering, including a U.S. congressional analysis, published on October 29, that calls for research across the federal government. In his foreword to the report, Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the outgoing chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, highlights the dangers of stifling research and calls for a “rigorous and exhaustive examination” of geo¬engineering strategies.

“If climate change is one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare,” says Gordon, “then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat.” His report singles out the U.S. National Nano¬technology Initiative–a program that incorporates research at 13 federal agencies–as a possible model for coordinating research.

The Nagoya agreement grants an exception for smaller studies conducted in a “controlled setting”, but only if they are thoroughly assessed and “justified by the need to gather specific scientific data.” Ken Caldeira, a geochemist who studies geoengineering at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., finds the agreement’s language vague and confusing. “What does ‘specific’ mean? Who is to determine the necessity of the data? How do I demonstrate a need to do anything?” he asks. Caldeira is also concerned that the agreement does not distinguish between controversial geoengineering technologies intended to block out the sun and less problematic techniques, such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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