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A Climate Silver Bullet?

Many of those who gathered in New York this week for the latest round of international climate summitry believe that as the world falls further behind in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, other options such as solar geoengineering and carbon removal must be on the table. The problem is that techno-optimism can easily become an alibi for inaction.

In this Big Picture, David Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard, argues that foregoing debate and research on climate geoengineering now could increase the risk of future misuse. But Karin Nansen of Friends of the Earth International contends that advocacy for carbon capture and related technologies has become a “charade” through which entrenched interests can keep profiting from an unsustainable status quo. And in so doing, warns François Martel of the Pacific Islands Development Forum, they are threatening the very survival of low-lying island countries.

Making matters worse, Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group points out that geoengineering technologies could actually pose additional risks, given that they are designed to alter climate conditions on a massive scale, yet remain largely untested. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon thus sees an urgent need for international standards governing the experimentation and use of such measures. And Barbara Unmüssig of the Heinrich Böll Foundation says that any global regulatory regime must include outright bans on the most politically and socially disruptive geoengineering methods.

nansen1_spencer platt_getty images)_ big oil Spencer Platt/Getty Images
martel1_Fiona GoodallGetty Images for Lumix_island Fiona Goodall/Getty Images for Lumix
ribeiro3_GettyImages_factorypollutiondarksky Getty Images
kimoon25_yuri arcurs_getty images_ps Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images
Scientists stand beside a new carbon capture test unit Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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