There are few things that Oxford doesn't have an institute for. There is an Oxford Institute of Ageing, another for Yiddish Studies. The latest addition
may well become the most controversial - the Oxford Geoengineering Institute, designed to study techniques which, says its founder director Tim Kruger, involve "deliberate, large-scale intervention in the earth's natural systems" to "avoid the worst impacts of climate change".
Geoengineering deeply divides scientists and environmentalists. Should we really consider spraying sulphates into the stratosphere, planting artificial trees across deserts or dumping iron filings in the Pacific as legitimate options to cool down our planet? Kruger, whose preferred solution involves spreading billions of tonnes of lime in the oceans (see cquestrate.com), likens the approach to having an airbag in a car: it's better not to crash, but also sensible to insure against the risk that the worst will happen. Plus, "the time to design an airbag is before you are skidding on ice".
The truth is that we are already geoengineering the earth - just unintentionally. Putting 329 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, as humanity has managed since 1750, qualifies as a serious planetary experiment. But it wasn't intended as such, and intent is central to establishing liability in law. No one suggests that Exxon et al intended to cook the planet; had that been the case, every fossil-fuel company would long have been sued out of existence. In contrast, explicitly intentional alterations to earth system processes - especially changes that are improperly understood and come with enormous risks attached - raise huge ethical and governance questions. If an additional dose of global dimming switches off the Indian monsoon, as it well might, who feeds the billion or so people who would then starve?
For some, just talking about the issue raises anger. As Jim Thomas, of the Canada-based ETC Group, insists: "The notion that you can dedicate an institute to studying the 'feasibility' of geoengineering schemes without advocating, mainstreaming and lending credence to the idea as a whole is either deeply naive or actively dishonest." Many environmentalists insist that geoengineering should remain taboo, citing the "moral hazard" argument: give politicians an alternative, and they will flunk emissions reduction efforts at the UN's climate talks in Copenhagen.
Another black mark for geoengineering is that it recently received the support of the "sceptical environmentalist" Bjørn Lomborg. The green-baiting statistician reviewed planetary engineering options with a panel of economists and concluded that some ideas - such as a plan to spray sea salt into the skies from wind-powered ships - gave better value for money than reducing emissions.
Either way, the geoengineering genie is unlikely to be stuffed back into the bottle. The Royal Society issued a report recently that ranked schemes according to their cost, effectiveness and safety. Top of the list came "air capture" - the idea of removing excess CO2 from the free atmosphere. Unlike messing with the seas or the stratosphere, this would simply involve undoing some of the damage humanity has so far caused - and would tackle the global warming problem at source. Maybe the Oxford Institute for Air Capture should be next week's project.