LSC chair Dominique Brossard sheds light on communication about climate engineering

Story by Ysabella Bhagroo. Ysabella is an undergraduate student majoring in LSC and the Department of Life Sciences Communication 2017-18 Lenore Landry Scholar.

It’s the stuff of science fiction – artificially whitening clouds, injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere, seeding the oceans with iron –  all to reverse the escalating consequences of climate change.

With changing global weather patterns, including five hurricanes within the past month, Dominique Brossard, chair of the Life Sciences Communication Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes the time to discuss solutions is now.

According to a recent Stanford study, if we want to reduce global temperature by 2 degrees Celsius, we need to significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels within the next 2 or 3 decades. To do this, experts are turning to climate engineering, or “geoengineering,” for answers.

LSC chair Dominique Brossard

Climate engineering can be separated into two categories. The first, solar radiation management, involves engineering technologies that reflect sunlight back into space before it warms the atmosphere.

The second, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technologies, remove carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and hold these gases in long-term storage.

Although these two geoengineering options are gaining traction, some skeptics argue that the material, political, and existential risks outweigh the benefits.

This raises questions: Who gets to decide the direction of climate engineering research? Who will pay for it? How do we ensure important stakeholders have a voice in the conversation? Who are we as people, and what is our responsibility to the planet?

According to Brossard, it’s less of a discussion about whether climate engineering is a risk worth taking, and more about people’s reaction toward that risk. Are people going to feel safe once climate engineering strategies are employed?

“The magnitude [of climate engineering] is intense, it’s freaky, and it’s not controllable. The potential consequences are extreme, so the stakes are very high,” said Brossard.

Climate engineering could be the answer, but more conversations must happen before any advancements can be made.

“I believe the way to get potential policy makers to talk about these things is by having public arenas where they can be discussed,” said Brossard.

Brossard illustrated this point on Thursday, September 14, at a talk sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies titled “Searching for Answers on a Warming Planet: Why We May Need Climate Engineering.”

During the talk, Brossard explained how framing the cultural narrative surrounding climate engineering in a positive way is key to garnering public support. According to Brossard, social scientists and the media must work together to portray climate engineers as working with nature instead of against nature. She said choosing words that highlight the potential benefits of climate engineering like ‘energy sustainability’ or ‘renewables’ is more convincing than telling people facts.

Still, the question of whether climate engineering is the right approach to curb the Earth’s changing climate remains up for debate. Brossard, encourages the community to take part in the conversation.

“I believe steps should be decided once everyone who has a stake is at the table,” said Brossard. “Studies show Americans want to talk about climate change. So, let’s talk about it.”