GAO Report on Geoengineering

Why GAO Did a Report Related to Geoengineering:


Policymakers have raised questions about geoengineering—large-scale deliberate interventions in the earth’s climate system to diminish climate change or its impacts—and its role in a broader strategy of mitigating and adapting to climate change. Most geoengineering proposals fall into two categories: carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which would remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and solar radiation management (SRM), which would offset temperature increases by reflecting sunlight back into space.


 GAO was asked to examine (1) the state of geoengineering science, (2) federal involvement in geoengineering, and (3) the views of experts and federal officials about the extent to which federal laws and international agreements apply to geoengineering, and any governance challenges. GAO examined relevant scientific and policy studies, relevant domestic laws and international agreements, analyzed agency data describing relevant research for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, and interviewed federal officials and selected recognized experts in the field.


What GAO Found:


Few geoengineering experiments or modeling studies have been conducted, and major uncertainties remain on the efficacy and potential consequences of geoengineering approaches. GAO’s review of relevant studies and discussions with selected experts indicated that relatively more laboratory and field research relevant to certain CDR approaches exists, although most of this research was not designed to apply to geoengineering. In contrast, few modeling studies or field experiments have focused on SRM approaches, according to experts and recent studies. Experts identified only one SRM field experiment with published results—a 2009 Russian experiment that injected aerosols into the middle troposphere to measure their reflectivity. Experts, as well as relevant studies, identified several major uncertainties in need of further investigation for CDR and SRM.


Federal agencies identified 52 research activities, totaling about $100.9 million, relevant to geoengineering during fiscal years 2009 and 2010. GAO’s analysis found that 43 activities, totaling about $99 million, focused either on mitigation strategies or basic science. Most of the research focused on mitigation efforts, such as geological sequestration of CO2, which were identified as relevant to CDR approaches but not designed to address them directly. GAO found that nine activities, totaling about $1.9 million, directly investigated SRM or less conventional CDR approaches. Officials from interagency bodies coordinating federal responses to climate change indicated that their offices have not developed a coordinated strategy, and believe that, due to limited federal investment, it is premature to coordinate geoengineering activities. However, federal officials also noted that a large share of existing federal climate science research could be relevant to geoengineering. Agencies requested roughly $2 billion for such activities in fiscal year 2010. Without a coordinated federal strategy for geoengineering, it is difficult for agencies to determine the extent of relevant research, and policymakers may lack key information to inform subsequent decisions on geoengineering and existing climate science efforts.


According to legal experts and federal officials, the extent to which federal laws and international agreements apply to geoengineering is unclear. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken steps to regulate one CDR approach and has determined that it has sufficient authority to regulate two other approaches. EPA officials said EPA has not assessed the applicability of other laws because geoengineering research is in its initial stages. Similarly, legal experts and Department of State officials said that, except for three instances, parties to international agreements have not addressed their agreements’ applicability to geoengineering, largely due to limited geoengineering activity and awareness of the issue. Legal experts’ and officials’ views differed on the best approach for international governance, but generally agreed that the federal government should take a coordinated, interagency approach on domestic regulation. Experts and officials also identified governance challenges, such as the need to address liability.


What GAO Recommends:


GAO recommends that within the Executive Office of the President, the appropriate entities, such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), establish a clear strategy for geoengineering research in the context of the federal response to climate change to ensure a coordinated federal approach. OSTP neither agreed nor disagreed with our recommendation, but provided technical comments.


For More Details:

Climate Change:  A Coordinated Strategy Could Focus Federal Geoengineering Research and Inform Governance Efforts.  GAO-10-903, September 23.

Highlights –


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1 Response to GAO Report on Geoengineering

  1. Roger Hansen says:

    A past colleague of mine–Dr. Arlin Super–had the following comments on the GAO report:

    Sounds like they are interested in quite large-scale projects which is ironic to me since our federal government has been unwilling to fund even winter orographic weather modification for many years, an activity much less complex, much better understood and on a much smaller scale than “geoengineering.” We apparently lacked enough evidence to go any further with cloud seeding research but are ready to consider a leap of several orders of magnitude and deal with global climate change.

    I’m attaching some information and referring you to some website blogs which cover the skeptic point of view regarding CO2 being the main forcing function behind supposed manmade global warming. Doubt that you have time to do more than quickly scan a bit of it but just want you to realize that much information is out there which questions the claimed “consensus.” Ain’t no such thing. So I reject the whole premise behind the need for geoengineering and, in addition, consider it hubris to believe we could intentionally modify the climate in any significant manner. That is not to deny that man has been unintentionally modifying the climate on some scales for a long time; for example, by converting prairie to irrigated farm land and reducing forests to plots for growing food. Any any large city certainly creates a local heat island effect and likely affects precipitation for some tens of miles downwind as shown in studies completed a few decades ago.

    The only thought that comes to my mind for “geoengineering” would be on a rather small scale, attempting to increase the areal coverage and seasonal duration of mountain snowpacks in order to increase their albedo; that is, the ratio of reflected to incoming solar radiation, and SRM approach in their jargon. That would, of course, have the additional benefit of enhancing water supplies, claimed to be reduced by man-made global warming by many “climate scientists.”

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