The Politics of Geoengineering

A good one-page piece on climate geoengineering, nicely summarizing the potential technologies, potential risks and proposed governance architecture has been published recently in the journal Science, Jason J. Blackstock & Jane C.S. Long, The Politics of Geoengineering, 327 Science 527 (Jan. 2010) (subscription required).

Among the take-aways:

  1. Geoengineering schemes can be divided into two categories, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) (e.g. air capture or ocean fertilization) and solar radiation management (SRM) (such as stratospheric aerosol injection and cloud brightening).
    1. CDR deployment and long delays in climatic response to carbon forcing means that it would take decades to have substantive impacts
    2. SRM could influence climate within months, but is fraught with greater uncertainties in terms of effects; it could also result in uneven regional impacts and have serious unintended consequences, including delaying recovery of the ozone layer by decades and production of droughts in some regions
  2. Banning SRM research, despite the threats it may pose, would be ill-advised because SRM “might be the only recourse should a climate crisis materialize;” moreover, the threat of unilateral deployment counsels in favor of developing further knowledge to help us develop effective international governance structures and avoid unilateral actions;
  3. SRM research has moved from the “largely politically benign” stage of modeling to laboratory-based development of technologies, raising the prospects for national or corporate interests to seek to control or profit from these schemes.
    • Field tests of such technologies could exacerbate tensions; while sub-scale field experiments, such as those recently conducted in Russia, ostensibly are designed to have negligible environmental and transboundary impacts, the controversy surrounding a 2009 Indo-German ocean fertilization experiments evinces the political sensitivities of such efforts and uncertainties of such experiments’ impacts
  4. Confirming the effectiveness of an SRM scheme would ultimately require large-scale tests with demonstrable climatic effects, but given the difficulty of attributing impacts, and thus potentially assessing liability, it’s likely that uncertainties associated with causation would create international tension. Thus, there is a need to develop international norms and best practices for research;
  5. Issues of acceptable risk for sub-scale testing or management of SRM technologies, involves both scientific and political considerations. Vulnerable developing countries, absent at this point from discussions associated with SRM must be engaged. Moreover, we need to determine if existing frameworks, including international treaty regimes, are adequate to facilitate this process, or whether new architecture is required;
  6. National research programs and individual scientists need to forswear climatic impacts testing and carefully restrict sub-scale field testing until a legitimate international process has been established. These programs need to maximize transparency and prioritize research that focuses on international vs. international benefits.

Of course, many other questions associated with geoengineering remain that could generate some good discussion, including:

  • If international collaboration and transparency doesn’t convince some States that might be potentially adversely affected by such schemes that such programs are judicious, should such States have a veto over deployment of such schemes? Is that a realistic scenario? Is there a tenable basis in international law?
  • Given the problems in ascribing causation cited in the piece, would it be possible to establish a liability regime, and what would be the contours of such a regime?
  • From the perspective of potential negative side effects of geoengineering schemes, would it make more sense to focus on CDR approaches?

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