Communicating Climate Geoengineering to the Public

14/10/2013 10:15 BST | Updated 11/12/2013 10:12 GMT

The general public have not yet heard of geoengineering or climate engineering. It is the grandest of all ideas for if all other ideas for solutions to climate change fail - ideas for a deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system with the aim of reducing global warming by reversing or slowing it. Climate engineering is rapidly gaining scientific, political, commercial, and public attention, and national and international assessments have already been published. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pays attention to it, further raising the profile of climate engineering, stating "deliberate intervention at large scale would be an imperfect solution with potentially serious negative side-effects".

If any of the proposed ideas for climate engineering look to becoming a reality, then a sensible and measured conversation needs to take place between pro and anti over what choices exist and what consequences they will bring. The same might be said of Genetically Modified Crops in the EU. Because of the hysteria portrayed by the media responding to pro and anti-pressure groups, a decade of research knowledge and a sensible measured conversation within science and society has been lost.

The simplest way to communicate climate engineering promotes big engineering techno-fix ideas for reducing the heat of the sun hitting earth, or scouring the excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but there is more to it than that. Back in 2004, I press-released a workshop where big thinkers deliberated on the best ideas for planetary geoengineering; my science fiction-like news made front-page headlines in the UK and led to a feature article in the esteemed magazine New Scientist. Yes, this gave the workshop and my organisation good publicity. No, it was not good science communication for public understanding, just a sensational headline presenting geoengineering as a technical solution with neither risk nor societal hazards.

In the UK there has been a great deal of very early upstream public engagement around geoengineering, with researchers asking focus groups to deliberatively think about and give their opinion. Work recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change describes the public opinion of research intended to test the idea of a high altitude-pipe, in case anyone ever wants to spray aerosols as a cooling-aid for the atmosphere. The researchers, my colleagues at Cardiff University, found that people were reluctantly supportive of testing climate-engineering ideas as long as all other ideas for mitigation were pursued wholeheartedly as well.

One of the researchers doing the work told me that a common public comment was 'is climate change really going to be so bad that you are seriously thinking about geoengineering?' Climate change is a successful brand-name, but people don't know very much about the product. In this way, climate change communication still has a way to go beyond awareness-raising.

Our existing model of climate change communication only takes us so far when applied to climate engineering. Even though the European public overwhelmingly agree that the planet is warming and that humans are mainly or partly responsible, climate change has become a politically contested space, particularly in the US, UK and Australia. Instead of following this same contested route where the elites lobby the politicians and the public asks astute questions to pick through the misinformation and confusion, climate engineering requires a grown-up adult conversation across society.

In contrast to my 2004 press release, climate engineering should not be presented as the Plan B societally independent techno-fix solution to global warming. All pro and anti-parties should today agree to agree that climate engineering will not become the latest battlefield of climate-change communication. Instead, for the benefit of society, we all agree to have a grown-up adult conversation in which answers are sought to questions regarding the viability, reliability, safety and acceptability of climate engineering.

When I started out in my profession, communicating the evidence-base for climate change was a difficult story, but people were receptive to the science and the evidence. The phrases global warming and climate change have now entered common usage in households or policy parlance. From a marketing perspective, 'climate change' and 'global warming' are global brand names familiar in Europe, India, and even Idaho, I'm told.

Communicating climate change is a job well done. Having raised awareness, the climate conversation has rightly developed to what we can do about climate change now. Talking concepts, ideas and evidence-base is what science communication is all about; communicating the unknown unknowns of climate engineering presents certain problems.

Disclosure: Just to let you know that a percentage of my salary is currently from a European appraisal of climate engineering research called EuTRACE , I help with the communication.