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The dangerous vagary in ‘geoengineering’

By James Dacey,

Ok, maybe I’m being a bit pedantic here but am I the only one to be slightly confused and a little concerned by the vagary of the term “geoengineering”?

I raise this question now because yesterday the UK’s most prestigious scientific academy, the Royal Society, released a major report on the topic with the aim of clarifying the technical issues to better-inform climate policy. Politicians, however, like things to be spelt out veeerry cleeaarrly. Therefore, any confusion surrounding the central term in this policy document could stall the debate on what may become a key component of the fight against climate change.

So, let’s consult the Chambers English Dictionary, which just happens to be the only dictionary within grabbing distance at the time of writing:

“Geo” is the prefix – taken from Greek – for “Earth”; and engineer means “to put to practical use, engines or machinery of any type”.

I think you’ll agree that both of these words hold a broad range of meanings and a combination of the two makes for a very wide semantic field indeed. Use your own imagination here but I can picture all sorts of ways in which the naked Earth could be engineered – from spectacular agricultural terraces like those in the Andes to the idea of a giant Eiffel Tower replica carved into the Antarctic ice.

The Royal Society report, however, gives a specific definition of geoengineering as the “deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change”.

The report reviews a range of proposals such as launching giant mirrors into interstellar space to reflect the Sun’s rays, or injecting iron into the world’s oceans to rapidly increase the amount of phytoplankton that consume carbon dioxide.

The point is that all of these geoengineering proposals are related to the climate – specifically, technological solutions to minimizing the effects of anthropogenic climate change. So why are we not calling this “climate engineering”? It’s certainly not perfect but it’s surely a closer fit to the definition.

It just seems like the Royal Society has missed a great opportunity to kick this vague, poorly-chosen term into touch once and for all.

Anyway, if you can think of a better term that more accurately fits the definition then please feel free to offer your suggestion.

James Dacey,

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