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Should geoengineering be used to address global warming?

If humans heated the earth, perhaps our technology can cool it, too. A look at the science of geoengineering and how it might be used to address global warming.

By / Staff writer / May 3, 2010

A crop-duster airplane spews a cargo of salt over Prachauab Khirikhan, Thailand, in an attempt to seed the clouds and cause it to rain. This is an example of geoengineering being used to address global warming.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

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The time for barely muffled chuckles and rolled eyes is over. Scientists, ethicists, and legal experts are now quite soberly thinking about how humans should mess with the world's climate – with the goal of keeping it as close to what we are used to as possible.

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But as it stands today, geoengineering – as climate modification is being called – is little more than a shopping bag full of sometimes outrageous-sounding proposals and theories. Little is known about whether they would work in the real world.

Deciding which geoengineering ideas to test – and how to do it safely – presents a huge stumbling block. The effects could be global, but getting all nations to agree on any particular measure could prove to be a Herculean task.

At a conference in northern California in late March, one group of about 175 experts has begun trying. Modeling their effort on a 1975 conference that set voluntary standards for recombinant DNA research, the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, held in Pacific Grove, Calif., aims to establish a set of "norms" or accepted practices to guide scientists in testing geoengineering ideas. The hope is that these will provide a road map to binding international standards.

The need for rules is nearing. Some are already calling geoengineering "a bad idea whose time has come."

"There's definitely a shift under way from [geoengineering] being a sort of science-fiction oddity to [it being] something that is a strategy being considered," says Jamais Cascio, an environmental futurist and a research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Cascio's book on geoengineering, "Hacking the Earth," was published last year. At least two more books on the subject will be published this spring.

Britain's top scientific organization, the Royal Society, recently released an in-depth study on it. Both the British Parliament and US Congress are conducting investigations.

Geoengineering amounts to "research on whether there is an insurance policy" that could be cashed in as a last resort if other efforts fail, says Margaret Leinen, CEO of the nonprofit Climate Response Fund in Washington

Actually, by emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases, human activity is already resetting Earth's thermostat. Climate scientists say that a warming of several degrees Celsius worldwide is very likely this century.