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Does discussing geoengineering derail climate action? New study puts it to the test.

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Does discussing geoengineering derail climate action? New study puts it to the test.

Spoiler: They found no evidence that rational public discourse distracts people from the systemic changes necessary to decarbonize and reduce energy use across society.
January 30, 2024

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In most cases, talking about about geoengineering—a set of technologies that manipulate the environment and atmosphere to reduce the effects of climate change—doesn’t steer people away from climate action, according to a new study.

Researchers have feared that even debating these technologies, which include carbon dioxide removal (pulling carbon dioxide out of the air) and solar radiation management (introducing chemicals into the atmosphere to dim the sun and therefore reduce its heating of the earth), could derail people’s motivation to cut carbon emissions.

“Every climate tech comes with what’s best described as ‘green moral hazard’,” says study team member Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School in New York. That is, the allure of a technological fix for climate change can distract people from the systemic changes necessary to broadly decarbonize and reduce energy use across society.

But approaches like carbon dioxide removal and solar geoengineering may end up being necessary to stave off the worst effects of climate change, says Wagner. “How then to talk about them?” he asks. “Turns out there may indeed be ways to engage with either set of technologies without invoking green moral hazards.”

To reach that conclusion, Wagner and his collaborator, Christine Merk of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany, conducted an experimental public information campaign that reached about 340,000 people on Facebook. They constructed a series of posts combining different images and messages about solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal for the Facebook page of a large U.S. environmental nonprofit, and tracked users’ engagement in the form of ‘likes’ and signups for the organization’s newsletter.

 

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“Both ‘likes’ and newsletter signups can be interpreted as engagement with and interest in climate policy,” the researchers write in a paper published in the journal Climatic Change.

Some of the posts presented geoengineering as part of a sensible mix of climate policies, while others disparaged geoengineering as a ‘techno-fix’ or ‘Big Oil’s latest excuse’ for climate inaction. Other posts cast geoengineering as either a complement to or a substitute for emissions reductions.

The researchers compared engagement with the geoengineering posts to engagement with posts featuring more conventional messages about cutting emissions. This approach would enable them to detect either ‘crowding out’—if the temptation of geoengineering made people less inclined to support action to cut emissions—or ‘crowding in’—if geoengineering was such a scary prospect that talking about it made people more motivated to undertake emissions cuts.

For the most part, the geoengineering posts did neither better nor worse than the conventional climate action posts, the researchers report. “The surprising bit: just how persistent our nonfinding of no moral hazard appears to be,” Wagner says.

Only the most extreme framing—as in a post that presented the architects of Republican climate policy as ‘madmen’ and described solar radiation management as ‘Big Oil’s latest excuse’—moved the needle. This framing increased conservatives’ engagement and decreased that of liberals, a result that the researchers say might be more driven by differences in the groups’ reaction to the conventional climate message.

“Yes, if we dial up things to 1,000, we can indeed get moral hazard, or its inverse. But sensible descriptions of (solar) geoengineering invoke neither,” says Wagner.

The findings offer some reassurance that just broaching the topic of geoengineering in public discourse is unlikely to derail broader climate action. But nor is an anodyne result guaranteed. “The big question: what’s the role of vested interests” in shaping conversation and actions around geoengineering, Wagner says. “In the end, public opinion—as is sadly often the case—matters a lot less than what vested interests want.”

Source: Merk C. and G. Wagner. “Presenting balanced geoengineering information has little effect on mitigation engagement.” Climatic Change 2024.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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