The Arctic Council and Geoengineering?

As the case for a concerted research and development program for climate geoengineering grows, questions of how to govern such initiatives, as well as potential future deployment, have grown. An interesting new piece suggests a possible role for the Arctic Council, Egede-Nissen & Venema, Desperate Times, Desperate Measures: Advancing the Geoengineering Debate at the Arctic Council (IISD, 2009). While the focus of the report is esoteric, it discusses many issues pertinent to a broader discussion of geoengineering, including equity issues, governance considerations, and the exigencies that might drive an embrace of geoengineering schemes.

Among the piece’s takeaways:

  1. The Arctic is a “canary in the coalmine,” facing dramatic warming and loss of sea ice; this includes accelerating thawing of permafrost, which stores billions of metric tones of carbon that could be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane. Positive feedback mechanisms may ultimately result in passing a tipping point which will trigger unpredictable and irreversible impacts;
  2. The Arctic Council could serve an important role in advocating for a comprehensive scientific review of geoengineering options to protect the Arctic, and the planet more generally;
  3. Geoengineering options (with an emphasis on solar radiation management) must be taken seriously given the feckless international and national responses to climate change to date, and the very long lag that has marked responses to climate change; this, in conjunction with the possibility of approaching a tipping point in the Arctic very soon, argues in favor of developing a geoengineering governance architecture to facilitate to responding to potential climate crises;
  4. A taboo against geoengineering is not judicious, as it would only constrain those actors most likely to engage in responsible research, while turning less responsible actors away from international cooperation;
  5. While the Arctic Council shouldn’t “reinvent itself as a planetary engineer” since it it only comprised of eight States and only makes recommendations to its parties, it could serve as a good platform to help stimulate research on geoengineering options and help to develop governance infrastructure. The Arctic Council is a particularly good choice because its unique structure allows participation by indigenous groups in its working groups and its scientific committee.  Also, the Council could help to build trust between the scientific community, policy-makers and the public given the high degree of legitimacy it enjoys.

This article could generate some good discussion around the following questions:

  1. Would it be judicious to focus on a regional geoengineering response to climate change, e.g. in the Arctic region, as opposed to a global scheme? What are the potential benefits and problems with such an approach?;
  2. Is the optimal approach to geoengineering research and/or deployment a fragmented approach in which several regimes seek to regulate research and development/deployment efforts, or would it make more sense to centralize such efforts in one regime, e.g. the UNFCCC?
  3. Do you agree that a ban on geoengineering is injudicious because some actors would ignore such actions?

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