The political dilemma over geoengineering – deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects – will perhaps be most acute in China.
In December, the country listed geoengineering among its Earth science research priorities, in a marked shift in the international climate change landscape noticed by China specialists Kingsley Edney and Jonathan Symons.
On the one hand, China's rapid economic growth has seen a huge escalation in its greenhouse gas emissions, which on an annual basis overtook those of the United States five years ago. Sustained GDP growth provides China's Communist party with its only claim to legitimacy, its "mandate of heaven". China's efforts to constrain the growth of its emissions have been substantial, and certainly put to shame those of many developed nations.
Yet neither China's efforts nor those of other countries over the next two or three decades are likely to do much to slow the warming of the globe, nor halt the climate disruption that will follow. Global emissions have not been declining or even slowing. In fact, global emissions are accelerating. Even the World Bank, which for years has been criticised for promoting carbon-intensive development, now warns that we are on track for 4C of warming, which would change everything.
China is highly vulnerable to water shortages in the north, with declining crop yields and food price rises expected, and storms and flooding in the east and south. Climate-related disasters in China are already a major source of social unrest so there is a well-founded fear in Beijing that the impacts of climate change in the provinces could topple the government in the capital. Natural disasters jeopardise its mandate.
So what can the Chinese government do? Continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions is a condition for its hold on power, but climate disruption in response to emissions growth threatens to destabilise it.
Geoengineering has immediate appeal as a way out of this catch-22. While a variety of technologies to take carbon out of the air or to regulate sunlight are being researched, at present by far the most likely intervention would involve blanketing the Earth with a layer of sulphate particles to block some incoming solar radiation.
Spraying sulphate aerosols could mask warming and cool the planet within weeks, although it would not solve the core problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans.
Should it start to seem that we are seeing real negative effects due some some kind of global warming, China choosing unilaterally to do something about it might be one of the more likely eventualities. The thing about being a one party dictatorship of sorts is that there isn't a whole lot of worrying about governmental checks and balances, and other countries with more red tape might be happy to sit back and let China take the blame.
Of course, just as now it's virtually impossible to determine whether any short term change in the weather has anything to do with global climate change (which the chicken little faction eager to blame any hurricane, tornado, drought or early frost on global warming, while critics rightly point out that all of these things have a tendency to happen at intervals anyway), once anyone starts trying any geoengineering you can bet that critics will blame any adverse weather occurances on the geoengineering. It would make a perfect scapegoat since it would be very hard to prove that it wasn't at fault for any given thing.