far more research and debate on all these
issues. And since geoengineering would
generally affect all countries, regardless
of which ones deploy it, the more nations
that take part the better, says Douglas
MacMartin, a senior research associate
in mechanical and aerospace engineering
at Cornell University, who has advised on
the Chinese program.
Because China is increasingly influential on climate issues, the broader significance of the geoengineering program
may be the international example that it
sets, says Janos Pasztor, executive director
of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering
Notably, it could compel other
nations to make similar investments in
exploring the regional impacts and policy implications of geoengineering, or at
least to engage on the subject. In fact, the
program has already taken steps to incorporate poor nations like the Philippines
and Bangladesh into discussions on the
issue; this past summer it hosted a workshop on geoengineering in the developing world.
But are there any risks if China, with
its mixed history on human rights and
its lack of democratic institutions, estab-lishes itself as a scientific leader in a field
with the power to alter the entire globe,
for better or worse?
To the degree that the science is openly
published and there’s a lot left to learn, “it
doesn’t matter which country understands
first,” Pasztor says.
But over the long term, there could be
risks if any single nation dominates the
research on this issue, because it could
also come to dominate the debate on how,
when, and whether to ultimately deploy
such technology, MacMartin says.
“It is essential for the U.S. to continue
to have a seat at the table in any decision
that affects the entire planet,” he says.
During the last three years, China has
assembled one of the largest federally
funded geoengineering research programs
in the world, marking another area where
it’s forging ahead of other nations on climate matters.
The approximately $3 million program, funded by the Ministry of Science
and Technology, incorporates around 15
faculty members and 40 students across
three institutions. The researchers are
assessing the impact of using technology
to alter the climate and exploring related
governance issues. The effort explicitly
does not include technology development
or outdoor experiments, in contrast to
emerging U.S. research programs at Harvard and the University of Washington.
“They don’t want to be seen as the bad
guys, so there’s a reluctance to do that
among some groups,” says John Moore, a
British glaciologist and climate modeler
who is overseeing the program.
Geoengineering is a blanket term for
a number of proposed methods for coun-
teracting climate change. Among other
approaches, scientists have explored the
possibility of spraying particles into the
stratosphere to scatter sunlight. Another
idea is making coastal clouds more reflec-
tive. It’s generally believed such methods
could offset temperature increases, but
there are considerable concerns about
potential environmental side effects, the
tricky political challenges they raise, and
the ethics of deploying a technology that
could alter climate on a global scale.
Given these challenges and the rising threat of climate change, a growing
number of scientists say there should be
China’s Ambitious Push for
Backed by $3 million in federal funds, Chinese scientists are assessing how
geoengineering would affect agriculture, glaciers, sea levels, and more.