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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2010

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Geoengineering the Climate: The Social and Ethical Implications

Preventing Dangerous Climate Change

Anthropogenic climate change is now a global political priority, and governments across the world are devising policies aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. This upsurge in political activity reflects the increasing scientific consensus that the effect of unmitigated climate change for human and non-human systems will be overwhelmingly negative.2 The effects of accelerated climatic change are already being observed at the polar ice caps.3 With the United Nations negotiations in December 2009 in Copenhagen a focal point for policymakers everywhere, discussion no longer centers on whether climate change should be tackled, but how.

Typically, policies are aimed at preventing what the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) referred to as dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Although there are significant difficulties in defining what constitutes “dangerous” climate change,4 a strong international consensus has emerged that says that preventing a rise in global temperatures of more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial revolution levels is critical (corresponding to a level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of approximately 450 parts per million). Beyond this level, feedback loops in the climate system become increasingly likely—and the threat of relatively rapid and catastrophic changes becomes significantly greater.

ADAM CORNER is a research associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. His research looks at how people evaluate scientific arguments and evidence, the communication of climate change, and the public understanding of emerging areas of science.

NICK PIDGEON is is a professor at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University, and Director of the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff ( He conducts interdisciplinary research on issues at the interface of society, public policy, technology, risk and the environment.

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