The public is surprisingly aware of the fact that humans could deliberately hack the planet's climate to reduce or offset changes due to greenhouse gas emissions, according to a first-of-its kind survey.
What's more, 72 percent of the 3,105 respondents think scientists should be allowed to study ways to do this that involve managing the amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth's surface, such as injecting tiny particles into the stratosphere to reflect some of the sun's energy back into space.
This field of science is technically known as geoengineering, though the survey found that more people have a better idea of what it's all about when the tem "climate engineering" is used, according to the results, which were presented Monday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
Scientists have batted around the concept since the 1960s, though it remained on the periphery of the climate debate until the last few years largely due to fears that public discussion would lessen incentives for political action to curb emissions, note the researchers.
But in recent years the concept has gained traction due in part to the fact that the prominent scientist Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel for his work on the ozone hole, has urged systematic study of solar radiation management.
As well, news media coverage of geoengineering has spiked and bookshelves have begun to creak under the weight of tomes dedicated to the idea, such as Eli Kintisch's "Hack the Planet" and Jeff Goodell's "How to Cool the Planet".
Given the growing recognition, the researchers felt the time is ripe to collect data on public opinions and awareness on the subject.
According to the results, 8 percent of the respondents correctly described geoengineering and 45 percent correctly described the interchangeable term "climate engineering," adding weight to the argument that the term geoengineering is misleading and difficult to understand.
While 72 percent of the respondents support studying solar radiation management, uncertainty about using the technique to stop a climate emergency now or deploying it immediately was considerable.
"Overall the support for [solar radiation management] is surprisingly high," the team writes. "Our own view, and our impression of the dominant opinion within the research and policy community, is that near term use of SRM would be reckless."
The research team, which includes David Keith, an expert on scientific study of geoengineering at Harvard University and the University of Calgary, was pleased to also find broad public trust in university researchers to dispense honest information about the field.
In fact, 75 percent or respondents ranked university researchers as trustworthy.
"As future policy and governance debates concerning SRM continue, scientists are likely in a unique and trusted position of influence … ensuring that the science remains disentangled from the politics will help to preserve the public's trust in scientists on the topic of SRM," they conclude.
Less than trustworthy
Less than a third, however, trust information about geoengineering from the government. The media is an even less trustworthy source of information (26 percent).
There's also a subset of people out there who believe governments or scientists are already distributing chemicals in the atmosphere for purposes ranging from culling the population to mind control.
"We found that 2.6 percent of the subjects believe that it is completely true that the government has a secret program that uses airplanes to put harmful chemicals into the air and 14 percent of the sample believe that this is partly true," the team notes.
More on geoengineering:
- The planet-hackers are coming
- Should we geoengineer the Earth's climate?
- Willing to give up blue skies for climate fix?
- Tweaking the climate to save it: Who decides?