The Paradox of Climate Engineering

earthwrenchInstructors who include a lesson on climate geoengineering now have a luxury of riches in terms of student readings. However, one I’d highly recommend is an article by Michael Zürn of the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung and Stefan Schäfer of the Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies in the journal Global Policy.

Zürn and Schäfer argue that the panoply of climate geoengineering options pose a “paradox,” in that “those few technologies that promise to act fast at a low price (identified by the authors as stratospheric particle injection and marine cloud brightening) would also bear the greatest risk of creating political and social resistance and conflict.” The authors conclude that the implications of such conflict could include international conflict, efforts at “counter-climate engineering” by States seeking to offset cooling effects of geoengineering, as well as potentially “permanent damage” to the UNFCCC process.

The authors cite four potential side effects of climate geoengineering that must be addressed to avoid the “paradox.” These included engendering widespread social and political acceptance, avoidance of potential moral hazards (possibility that climate geoengineering might denude the commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions), avoidance of a slippery slope from research to deployment without a compelling rationale; and avoidance of the termination problem, potentially “catastrophic” climatic effects should the use of technologies cease.

To address these potential side effects, the authors proposed three institutional principles, including transparency in research to ensure social and political acceptance, institutional integration with existing climate policies to avoid moral hazard, and a clear distinction between research and deployment to avoid both slippery slope and termination issues. Zürn and Schäfer also developed six components to implement these principles, including establishment of a coalition of States to engage in transparent research, assessment of research b the IPCC, decision making by the  UNFCCC in terms of governance protocols, establishment of uniform metrics for comparison of geoengineering and mitigation options, establishment of a time-limited moratorium on implementation and field-testing of climate geoengineering technologies, with subsequent implementation subject to the UNFCCC, and obligations on States to increase emissions reductions if they choose to deploy geoengineering technologies, in order to ameliorate potential termination effects.

This article should be a good jumping off point for class discussion on this controversial topic. Some potential discussion questions include the following;

  1. Would the proposals of the authors likely help to ameliorate concerns of States that might otherwise oppose climate geoengineering research and/or deployment?;
  2. Is quick deployment of climate geoengineering solutions an important criteria in determining potentially optimal geoengineering approaches?;
  3. Do you believe that climate geoengineering poses a moral hazard? How would we empirically test this proposition?

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