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Living the Global Social Experiment of Geoengineering: A Challenge for Global Governance

Brett Cherry - 2nd July 2013

Brett Cherry from the The Institute of Hazard Risk and Resilience asks how we may govern geoengineering.

The prospect of governing geoengineering is perplexing for a variety of reasons, many of which deal with the nature of the technologies involved and the scale at which they are intended to be deployed. While in some ways similar in scope to other technological innovations such as nanotechnology or synthetic biology, the methods used for SRM are not novel; nevertheless the end result may be the making of entirely new climate(s). One approach that has potential for mitigating the effects of climate change is Solar Radiation Management (SRM) – spraying large quantities of reflective particles into the Earth’s stratosphere to reflect solar radiation back out to space.

SRM has entered into mainstream science-policy debates only very recently, primarily due to the political expedience of climate change as a global environmental problem that threatens the existence of the human species itself, not to mention eliminating biodiversity on a scale never experienced before. The UK has a research project on SRM known as SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering), which had its own problems including the question of patenting the technology that came to light as a result of its stage gate evaluation process. There are some examples of developing policy for geoengineering such as the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) and the Oxford Principles, ethical guiding principles for governing geoengineering.

Since people have been engineering the planet’s climate unintentionally through the production of greenhouse gas emissions then a question for international policy is ‘can we intentionally change the climate to a state that is less likely to cause existential and economic damage?’ or ‘at the very least buy enough time in order to design and implement effective international carbon emissions regulations?’

Possible answers to questions of this sort are complex because geoengineering is not unlike climate change in that it involves every nation, community and individual on the planet. Therefore decisions to deploy geoengineering to alleviate the environmental devastation caused by climate change cannot solely lie with political and scientific experts alone, it must look to citizens or ‘non-experts’ who are also capable of imagining and assessing the potential futures where SRM is used.

While studies on engaging the general public with geoengineering through dialogues for example have revealed that participants do want more scientific research on SRM, and highlight how citizens provide sound advice on the need to develop an international government structure for it (see Engaging with geoengineering), another recent study (‘Living the Global Social Experiment: An analysis of public discourse on solar radiation management and its implications for governance’, Global Environmental Change 2013) that used deliberative focus group discussions, found that people were discouraged by its potential deployment as it would lead to a new kind of global experiment. This along with a range of other concerns are potentially useful for understanding the socio-political issues surrounding geoengineering, specifically SRM, particularly as present and future research continues to gauge its feasibility for combatting the environmental effects of a rapidly rising global temperature.

Proposed field test for SPICE project. Credit: SPICE

Participants in the study were not told the topic was geoengineering and were placed into groups based on their shared experience. For example, people who were engineers or managers made up one group, and participants who spent much of their time outdoors, such as walking or gardening, were in another. Another group consisted of mothers with young children. Researchers put participants into groups based on shared experience because it helped create ‘…a more favourable setting for the collective discussion of an unfamiliar topic’. They were then introduced to geoengineering along with different ways it was framed by those in favour and those in opposition to SRM. This allowed participants to think through the topic giving far richer responses than they would on a survey.

The argument underlying the use of SRM essentially consists of two points: (1) That current and future climate mitigation efforts will not reduce emissions in time; and (2) SRM can potentially produce desirable effects on the global climate within a relatively short period of time and may be cost-effective, saving billions, compared to the costs of ‘out of control’ climate change. However, this assumes that the intent as well as the capabilities of the technology are well-defined and that existing forms of governance would be able to manage and regulate SRM.

Unfortunately, these assumptions fail to address the uncertainties of geoengineering technologies both in their application and governance that were highlighted during the discussions between participants in the study. The intent behind geoengineering, although clearly benevolent in appearance, may not simply follow a path of alleviating the effects of climate change especially if hypothetically it could be used for geopolitical advantage. In order to fully assess the efficacy of the technology computer models alone will not do the job, nor likely will field trials. The only way to test SRM is through deployment, on a planetary scale. In order for this to be accomplished consensus must be reached by all participating nations as no one is capable of ‘opting out’ of a geoengineering programme.

If for example SRM is backed primarily by richer, more developed countries over less developed ones, deploying SRM could radically change the geopolitical landscape creating, potentially, new conflicts. If it were deployed, scientists (social, physical and biological researchers) along with policy makers would have to at least anticipate potentially new forms of conflict whether political, economic or environmental. If SRM could somehow be used to the advantage of one nation or a group of nations this would need to be accounted for. What researchers found through the discussion sessions with participants is that SRM seemed too centralised and autocratic as a technology to be governed democratically.

There is also the ‘realist’ problem for regulating geoengineering technologies like SRM. At present it has proved incredibly difficult in developing an international plan to reduce carbon emissions on a global scale, how then can such an agreement be reached for something as socially and scientifically uncertain as geoengineering? Especially if science is unable to predict with any strict confidence that unwanted side effects will not occur. And even if regulations are agreed upon and there is greater confidence that the technology will work, what is to prevent the problem of ‘moral hazard’ where instead of using SRM to provide more time to mitigate carbon emissions it is simply used as an excuse to continue emitting at the same scale?

The study confirmed a similar finding to what other social science researchers have also found – the more people know about how certain technologies (e.g. agricultural biotechnology, nanotechnology, synthetic biology) are being developed under real-world contingencies, the more sceptical they appear to become of it. SRM was seen as problematic in that it would create a new condition of global experimentation that must be questioned on the grounds that it would over shadow any form of technological governance in place at this time. If regulating SRM or any other geoengineering technology as a ‘public good’ is attainable, it will need to address uncertainties not only highlighted by scientists who are actively researching geoengineering, but the general public as well, including the key question of how to enter into such a state of global experimentation in a democratic manner.

Macnaghten, P. and Szerszynski, B. (2013). Living the global social experiment: an analysis of public discourse on solar radiation management and its implications for governance. Global environmental change., 23 (2). pp. 465-474.