Asilomar geoengineering conference grapples with the ethics of climate change shortcuts.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
In 1975, a group of molecular biologists retreated to Pacific Grove's beachfront Asilomar Conference Center to come up with a set of conditions for recombinant DNA research. The gathering has become a poster child for scientific self-restraint.
Thirty-five years later, a new group of labcoats is meeting, once again at Asilomar, to negotiate the rules for technologies that hold both the promise of saving, and the risk of destroying, life as we know it.
The topic is geoengineering, aka climate engineering, an emerging field that aims to use technology as a means to counteract global warming effects. Proposals include seeding the seas with iron to provoke massive plankton blooms (known as ocean fertilization), capturing and sequestering atmospheric carbon, releasing sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere, and whitening clouds to make them more reflective.
The conference is happening March 22-26. "Its intent is to focus on considering the types of research that will be needed to evaluate [geoengineering techniques] and guidelines for minimizing environmental risks from such research," reads a letter from Scientific Organizing Committee Chair Michael MacCracken.
The SOC and Climate Response Fund are organizing and fundraising for the conference, which is free to invited participants. Media are invited to attend only under the "Chatham House rule," which forbids quoting participants without explicit permission, and with an embargo on writing news, blogging, etc., during the meeting.
As Wired magazine reported March 23, the Climate Response Fund was founded by a scientist with a commercial interest in Climos, a geoengineering company with an interest in for-profit ocean fertilization.
The article points out a "fundamental tension of scientific self-regulation of risk- and value-laden experiments. While many of the field’s top scientists are attending the meeting, it has drawn criticism from high-level scientists with an interest in geoengineering like Stanford’s Ken Caldeira and the University of Calgary’s David Keith."
Conference organizers have promised a press briefing at the meeting's close.