What’s up with geoengineering? Most people don’t know.

Distribution of incorrect definitions of geoengineeringGeoengineering can be compared to taking a pill for being overweight. Instead of trying to tackle the root of the problem, it tries to cure the symptoms.

But like medicine for reducing obesity we will probably need it in the future because it seems impossible to reach a worldwide consensus on addressing the true cause of global warming.

But while scientist are undertaking experiments ranging from crop albedo geoengineering to marine cloud seeding and ocean iron fertilisation most people don’t even know what geoengineering is according to a report by Environmental Research Letters.

Most are unknowing but against

Of about 3000 respondents from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States only about 8 per cent could accurately define geoengineering. Surprisingly as much as 45 per cent could explain the almost-synonymous term climate engineering.

Does this mean that geoengineering will follow in the what-is-unknown-is-unwanted footsteps of nuclear energy and nanotechnology? Maybe so, since 41 per cent in the US and 30 per cent in the UK and Canada are opposed to ever implementing any form of geoengineering, even though only a small portion of them can actually describe what it is.

From pariah to new toy

In scientific circles however, more and more scientist seem to be discovering the potential of geoengineering. And as shown by a report earlier this month by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, policy makers have started showing interest (although still untrusting) in the topic as well, calling for greater federal leadership on climate-tweaking science.

But while 8 per cent seems low, a small scale survey in 2010 showed that only 3 per cent of Americans could comprehensibly explain what geoengineering meant at that time. Such a rapid rise in familiarity with the term might be caused by geoengineering being a relatively new term and by the media paying significantly more attention to the subject over the past decade.Number of geoengineering publicationsIt’s all in the wording

As it appears it’s mostly the word geoengineering that confounds the majority of people. Like nanotechnology it is a term that simply encompasses too broad a range of possibilities. Crop geoengineering for instance is in a completely different field of science than cloud geoengineering.

This also explains another result of the survey: No less than 70 per cent of respondents agree with further research into new strategies for reflecting sunlight back into space (increasing the Earth’s albedo), which included cloud seeding and putting giant mirrors in orbit around the planet.

Don’t duck and cover

So maybe gaining general acceptance for geoengineering is mostly a matter of communicating it the right way. At least the 1950’s ‘duck and cover’ nuclear instructional videos have shown us that keeping people in the dark will not increase acceptance.

But the communication around nanotechnology may be a shining example and an illustration of how to involve the public in future policy making on geoengineering. This will be crucial if the Earth is ever going to need its geoengineering pill.

© Jorn van Dooren | www.bitsofscience.org

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