Despite many years of debate and negotiation, emissions of greenhouse gases continue to grow. No wonder we are hearing more proposals of methods for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or reflecting sunlight back into space. Removal techniques, along with cloud seeding and simulation of volcanic eruptions, are begging for consideration. The Linköping University Climate Engineering (LUCE) interdisciplinary research programme is exploring the ways that climate engineering has been described in the media and scientific journals, as well as how it has been popularly understood.
The project is also analysing the possible impact of social presentation on the evolution of key technologies and the direction of climate policy.
Large-scale climate engineering would have major repercussions for weather patterns around the world. The technologies can be sorted into two primary categories: removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reflecting sunlight back into space. The risks, costs, sophistication and complexity of the potential methods vary greatly. Ocean fertilization and certain other approaches can be implemented within a few years at relatively low cost but with enormous environmental peril. Space mirrors and other technologies will require decades of research and major expenditures but entail fewer risks.
The main reason that the prospects for climate engineering are being taken so seriously is the growing conviction among scientists that the situation is spinning out of control. Some of them even argue that a number of tipping points have already been passed and that irreversible, accelerating changes are under way. Climate engineering is being proposed as an unavoidable method of restoring a modicum of balance. Both going forward with climate engineering and refraining from do so carry major risks. Another Catch 22 is that climate engineering has not yet progressed beyond the stage of ideas, prototypes and models. Only large-scale implementation – still regarded as an unpalatable strategy due to the unforeseeable consequences – can generate more reliable evidence. All the gaps in our knowledge notwithstanding, policymakers will soon be confronted with the need to evaluate both the promises and threats posed by these technologies. In other words, officeholders, authorities, the general public, businesses and other organisations will face important choices. Their perceptions of climate engineering will determine the policies that are regarded as legitimate at both the national and international level.
The projects are being conducted as a collaborative effort of researchers at Linköping University, the University of Nottingham, the University of Oxford, the University of Colorado, Massey University and the National Institute of Environmental Studies in Japan.
Three types of studies will be carried out:
- defining issues and generating knowledge, as well as scientific discussion in the media (document studies);
- social representation (focus groups);
- international comparisons, as well as the ways that the results impact climate policy around the world.
The projects proceed from theories of how ideas are formed and framed, sociological perspectives and the ways that complex scientific and technological questions are defined and understood (social representation). They also contribute theoretical insights about how people contextualize information and how focus group methods can be improved.