I think we should start serious research on geoengineering schemes, including actual experiments, not just calculations and simulations. I think we should do this with an open mind about whether we’ll decide that these schemes are good ideas or bad. Either way, we need to learn more about them. Simultaneously, we need an intelligent, well-informed debate about the many ethical, legal and political aspects.
Many express the fear that merely researching geoengineering schemes will automatically legitimate them, however hare-brained they are. There’s some merit to that fear. But I suspect that public opinion on geoengineering will suddenly tip from “unthinkable!” to “let’s do it now!” as soon as global warming becomes perceived as a real and present threat. This is especially true because oil, coal and gas companies have a big interest in finding solutions to global warming that don’t make them stop digging.
So if we don’t learn more about geoengineering schemes, and we start getting heat waves that threaten widespread famine, we should not be surprised if some big government goes it alone and starts doing something cheap and easy like putting tons of sulfur into the upper atmosphere… even if it’s been inadequately researched.
It’s hard to imagine a more controversial topic. But I think there’s one thing most of us should be able to agree on: we should pay attention to what governments are doing about geoengineering! So, let me quote a bit of this report prepared for the US Congress:
• Kelsi Bracmort and Richard K. Lattanzio, Geoengineering: Governance and Technology Policy, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 2 January 2013.
Kelsi Bracmort is a specialist in agricultural conservation and natural Resources Policy, and Richard K. Lattanzio is an analyst in environmental policy.
I will delete references to footnotes, since they’re huge and I’m too lazy to include them all here. So, go to the original text for those!
Climate change has received considerable policy attention in the past several years both internationally and within the United States. A major report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 found widespread evidence of climate warming, and many are concerned that climate change may be severe and rapid with potentially catastrophic consequences for humans and the functioning of ecosystems. The National Academies maintains that the climate change challenge is unlikely to be solved with any single strategy or by the people of any single country.
Policy efforts to address climate change use a variety of methods, frequently including mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is the reduction of the principal greenhouse gas (GHG) carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs. Carbon dioxide is the dominant greenhouse gas emitted naturally through the carbon cycle and through human activities like the burning of fossil fuels. Other commonly discussed GHGs include methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride. Adaptation seeks to improve an individual’s or institution’s ability to cope with or avoid harmful impacts of climate change, and to take advantage of potential beneficial ones.
Some observers are concerned that current mitigation and adaptation strategies may not prevent change quickly enough to avoid extreme climate disruptions. Geoengineering has been suggested by some as a timely additional method to mitigation and adaptation that could be included in climate change policy efforts. Geoengineering technologies, applied to the climate, aim to achieve large-scale and deliberate modifications of the Earth’s energy balance in order to reduce temperatures and counteract anthropogenic (i.e., human-made) climate change; these climate modifications would not be limited by country boundaries. As an unproven concept, geoengineering raises substantial environmental and ethical concerns for some observers. Others respond that the uncertainties of geoengineering may only be resolved through further scientific and technical examination.
Proposed geoengineering technologies vary greatly in terms of their technological characteristics and possible consequences. They are generally classified in two main groups:
• Solar radiation management (SRM) method: technologies that would increase the reflectivity, or albedo, of the Earth’s atmosphere or surface, and
• Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) method: technologies or practices that would remove CO2 and other GHGs from the atmosphere.
Much of the geoengineering technology discussion centers on SRM methods (e.g., enhanced albedo, aerosol injection). SRM methods could be deployed relatively quickly if necessary, and their impact on the climate would be more imme diate than that of CDR methods. Because SRM methods do not reduce GHG from the atmosphere, global warming could resume at a rapid pace if a deployed SRM method fails or is terminated at any time. At least one relatively simple SRM method is already being deployed with government assistance. [Enhanced albedo is one SRM effort currently being undertaken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. See the Enhanced Albedo section for more information.] Other proposed SRM methods are at the conceptualization stage. CDR methods include afforestation, ocean fertilization, and the use of biomass to capture and store carbon.
The 112th Congress did not take any legislative action on geoengineering. In 2009, the House Science and Technology Committee of the 111th Congress held hearings on geoengineering that examined the “potential environmental risks and benefits of various proposals, associated domestic and international governance issues, evaluation mechanisms and criteria, research and development (R&D) needs, and economic rationales supporting the deployment of geoengineering activities.”
Some foreign governments, including the United Kingdom’s, as well as scientists from Germany and India, have begun considering engaging in the research or deployment of geoengineering technologies be cause of concern over the slow progress of emissions reductions, the uncertainties of climate sensitivity, the possible existence of climate thresholds (or “tipping points”), and the political, social, and economic impact of pursuing aggressive GHG mitigation strategies.
Congressional interest in geoengineering has focused primarily on whether geoengineering is a realistic, effective, and appropriate tool for the United States to use to address climate change. However, if geoengineering technologies are deployed by the United States, another government, or a private entity, several new concerns are likely to arise related to government support for, and oversight of, geoengineering as well as the transboundary and long-term effects of geoengineering. Such was the case in the summer of 2012, when an American citizen conducted a geoengineering experiment, specifically ocean fertilization, off the west coast of Canada that some say violated two international conventions.
This report is intended as a primer on the policy issues, science, and governance of geoengineering technologies. The report will first set the policy parameters under which geoengineering technologies may be considered. It will then describe selected technologies in detail and discuss their status. The third section provides a discussion of possible approaches to governmental involvement in, and oversight of, geoengineering, including a summary of domestic and international instruments and institutions that may affect geoengineering projects.
Geoengineering technologies aim to modify the Earth’s energy balance in order to reduce temperatures and counteract anthropogenic climate change through large-scale and deliberate modifications. Implementation of some of the technologies may be controlled locally, while other technologies may require global input on implementation. Additionally, whether a technology can be controlled or not once implemented differs by technology type. Little research has been done on most geoengineering methods, and no major directed research programs are in place. Peer reviewed literature is scant, and deployment of the technology—either through controlled field tests or commercial enterprise—has been minimal.
Most interested observers agree that more research would be required to test the feasibility, effectiveness, cost, social and environmental impacts, and the possible unintended consequences of geoengineering before deployment; others reject exploration of the options as too risky. The uncertainties have led some policymakers to consider the need and the role for governmental oversight to guide research in the short term and to oversee potential deployment in the long term. Such governance structures, both domestic and international, could either support or constrain geoengineering activities, depending on the decisions of policymakers. As both technological development and policy considerations for geoengineering are in their early stages, several questions of governance remain in play:
• What risk factors and policy considerations enter into the debate over geoengineering activities and government oversight?
• At what point, if ever, should there be government oversight of geoengineering activities?
• If there is government oversight, what form should it take?
• If there is government oversight, who should be responsible for it?
• If there is publicly funded research and development, what should it cover and which disciplines should be engaged in it?
As a new and emerging set of technologies potentially able to address climate change, geoengineering possesses many risk factors that must be taken into policy considerations. From a research perspective, the risk of geoengineering activities most often rests in the uncertainties of the new technology (i.e., the risk of failure, accident, or unintended consequences). However, many observers believe that the greater risk in geoengineering activities may lie in the social, ethical, legal, and political uncertainties associated with deployment. Given these risks, there is an argument that appropriate mechanisms for government oversight should be established before the federal government and its agencies take steps to promote geoengineering technologies and before new geoengineering projects are commenced. Yet, the uncertainty behind the technologies makes it unclear which methods, if any, may ever mature to the point of being deemed sufficiently effective, affordable, safe, and timely as to warrant potential deployment.
Some of the more significant risks factors associated with geoengineering are as follows:
• Technology Control Dilemma. An analytical impasse inherent in all emerging technologies is that potential risks may be foreseen in the design phase but can only be proven and resolved through actual research, development, and demonstration. Ideally, appropriate safeguards are put in place during the early stages of conceptualization and development, but anticipating the evolution of a new technology can be difficult. By the time a technology is widely deployed, it may be impossible to build desirable oversight and risk management provisions without major disruptions to established interests. Flexibility is often required to both support investigative research and constrain potentially harmful deployment.
• Reversibility. Risk mitigation relies on the ability to cease a technology program and terminate its adverse effects in a short period of time. In principle, all geoengineering options could be abandoned on short notice, with either an instant cessation of direct climate effects or a small time lag after abandonment.
However, the issue of reversibility applies to more than just the technologies themselves. Given the importance of internal adjustments and feedbacks in the climate system—still imperfectly understood—it is unlikely that all secondary effects from large-scale deployment would end immediately. Also, choices made regarding geoengineering methods may influence other social, economic, and technological choices regarding climate science. Advancing geoengineering options in lieu of effectively mitigating GHG emissions, for example, could result in a number of adverse effects, including ocean acidification, stresses on biodiversity, climate sensitivity shocks, and other irreversible consequences. Further, investing financially in the physical infrastructure to support geoengineering may create a strong economic resistance to reversing research and deployment activities.
• Encapsulation. Risk mitigation also relies on whether a technology program is modular and contained or whether it involves the release of materials into the wider environment. The issue can be framed in the context of pollution (i.e., encapsulated technologies are often viewed as more “ethical” in that they are seen as non-polluting). Several geoengineering technologies are demonstrably non-encapsulated, and their release and deployment into the wider environment may lead to technical uncertainties, impacts on non-participants, and complex policy choices. But encapsulated technologies may still have localized environmental impacts, depending on the nature, size, and location of the application. The need for regulatory action may arise as much from the indirect impacts of activities on agro-forestry, species, and habitat as from the direct impacts of released materials in atmospheric or oceanic ecosystems.
• Commercial Involvement. The role of private-sector engagement in the development and promotion of geoengineering may be debated. Commercial involvement, including competition, may be positive in that it mobilizes innovation and capital investment, which could lead to the development of more effective and less costly technologies at a faster rate than in the public sector.
However, commercial involvement could bypass or neglect social, economic, and environmental risk assessments in favor of what one commentator refers to as “irresponsible entrepreneurial behavior.” Private-sector engagement would likely require some form of public subsidies or GHG emission pricing to encourage investment, as well as additional considerations including ownership models, intellectual property rights, and trade and transfer mechanisms for the dissemination of the technologies.
• Public Engagement. The consequences of geoengineering—including both benefits and risks discussed above—could affect people and communities across the world. Public attitudes toward geoengineering, and public engagement in the formation, development, and execution of proposed governance, could have a critical bearing on the future of the technologies. Perceptions of risks, levels of trust, transparency of actions, provisions for liabilities and compensation, and economies of investment could play a significant role in the political feasibility of geoengineering. Public acceptance may require a wider dialogue between scientists, policymakers, and the public.