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Professor Damon Teagle, Professor Malcolm Wright and Ms Pam Feetham

Climate engineering – What do the public think?

Researchers from Massey University (New Zealand) and the University of Southampton (United Kingdom) have undertaken the first systematic large-scale evaluation of the public reaction to climate engineering. The work is published in Nature Climate Change this week (January 12, 2014).

Climate engineering is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the environment to counteract climate change. Some scientists think such approaches will be required to combat the increasing rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) due to the burning of fossil fuels. Climate engineering could involve techniques that reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere or approaches that slow temperature rise by reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface.  

Co-author Professor Damon Teagle of the University of Southampton says, “Because even the concept of climate engineering is highly controversial, there is a pressing need to consult the public and understand their concerns before policy decisions are made.”

Lead author, Professor Malcolm Wright, deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey’s College of Business, says previous attempts to engage the public with climate engineering have been exploratory and small scale. “In our study we have drawn on commercial methods used to evaluate brands and new product concepts to develop a comparative approach for evaluating the public reaction to a variety of climate engineering concepts.”

The research consulted large representative samples in both Australia and New Zealand – 30 in-depth interviews were conducted, and more than 2000 participants completed the online survey.

“The results show that the public has strong negative views towards climate engineering,” Professor Wright says. “Where there are positive reactions, they favour approaches that reduce carbon dioxide over those that reflected sunlight.

“It is a striking result and a very clear pattern. Interventions such as putting mirrors in space or fine particles into the stratosphere are not well received. More natural processes of cloud brightening or enhanced weathering are less likely to raise objections, but the public react best to creating biochar or capturing carbon directly from the air.”

His colleague and co-author Pam Feetham, from Massey, says “the responses are remarkably consistent from both countries, with surprisingly few variations except for a slight tendency for older respondents to view climate engineering more favourably”.

Professor Wright believes that giving the public a voice so early in technological development is unusual, but increasingly necessary. “If these techniques are developed the public must be consulted. Our methods can be employed to evaluate the responses in other countries, and reapplied in the future to measure changes in public opinion as these potential new technologies are discussed and developed.”

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