Governance and Geoengineering

I had the good fortune of participating in a workshop on geoengineering last week (April 5th), organized by Elisa Graffey and ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.  For those that aren’t familiar with the topic, here are a couple great overviews of the discussion that the workshop organizers shared:

Here is a quick overview of the technologies in picture form (Courtesy of the Climate Viewer website):


You’ll see that the technologies fit into two broad categories. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which included all of the carbon capture technologies that you hear about in the coal industry discussions, is about removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The second type of technology is solar radiation management (SRM), which is about blocking some of the solar radiation from the earth’s atmosphere.

I’m not an expert on this subject, and I was attending to help understand the governance challenges.  Clearly, there are many issues to consider ranging from technical know-how to scalability, from moral and ethical implications to difficulties with experimentation and irreversibility.  The two interrelated challenges that I’d like to raise are:

  1. The capacity to act unilaterally and affect climatic conditions globally, and
  2. Who gets to “control” the global thermostat.

Some of these technologies – iron fertilization, spraying sulfates in the atmosphere, cloud seeding, and others – are inexpensive enough that they could be undertaken by a single country or even by wealthy individuals.  However, the ramifications would go beyond the borders of any individual country, affecting global temperatures, precipitation patterns, biodiversity levels, and many other knock-on effects.  In this situation, how are global decisions to be reached?  How are rogue nations (or other groups) to be contained? What are the collective responses to unilateral action?

These questions all relate to this second point.  If we reach a technological and scientific stage where we can effectively control the global temperature, how do we choose where to set it?  Do we rely on historical patterns?  If so, at what point in history?  Pre-industrial? The 1950s?  What if Russia wants to have a longer growing season?  What if island nations want more ice in Greenland to prevent sea level rise?  Of course, this oversimplifies, as temperature is not the only thing that changes.  What if the US or China acts to increase rainfall locally at the expense of other places?  What if changing temperatures affect the seasonality of monsoons or the runoff of glaciers and snowfields?

Clearly, the lists of questions can go on endlessly.  And clearly, there are no easy answers.  These are the challenges that we confront.  My hope is that raising some of these questions in this format would be enlightening to others that haven’t given it much thought yet.

I’d like to end with one final concern that underpins all of this – the moral hazard of such interventions.  At the end of the day, we still need to think about how we want to change our global emissions of carbon.  The technologies listed above do not target changing emissions and all have ramifications.  The ultimate question is what type of world do we want to live in.

One response to this post.

  1. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for this summary. Covers a lot of tricky issues around these technologies.

    The day after this workshop, some colleagues and I held a focus group with the public on how to govern field tests for geoengineering projects. The biggest concerns? Who is doing the testing, what are they seeking to gain, and who is responsible for unintended consequences. The moral hazard issue and the challenge of achieving a global agreement on geo-engineering also came up. Anyway, we should have more from that focus group and other public conversations as the year progresses!!

    – Nich


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