This interview was conducted for the ‘The Global Governance Futures 2025’ programme which brings together young professionals to look ahead and recommend ways to address global challenges.
MH & JS: What is geoengineering and why is the topic important? What are some of the most significant factors that will impact geoengineering in the coming decade?
SS: There’s been some debate over the definition of geoengineering. However, I tend to go with the Royal Society definition which is that geoengineering is “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.” There are two broad classes of geoengineering techniques. The first is carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The second is solar radiation management (SDR) techniques that seek to reflect the sun’s light and heat back into space.
Over the next decade, I think that one of the most significant factors impacting geoengineering will be the extent to which natural disasters – such as intense droughts and typhoons – are perceived as linked to climate change, which may accelerate research funding for geoengineering. Another important factor will be technological advancements in CDR and SDR and the level of traction that these technologies gain in research labs and start-ups. And lastly, in our hyper-connected society, the impact of media cannot be underestimated. If Hollywood, media personalities, or other high-profile leaders galvanize public awareness of geoengineering, we could see a push for awareness – whether positive or negative – in funding and regulations of geoengineering.
MH & JS: Thus far into the GGF program, having surveyed factors that influence the field of geoengineering, what are issues that have been most difficult to form consensus on?
SS: For those of us in the geoengineering working group, it has been challenging because it is a nascent field and there is so much that is unknown in terms of technical feasibility and potential side-effects.
Probably the biggest underlying theme that repeatedly surfaced during our discussion about geoengineering governance was the developed- versus developing-country perspective. Where countries prioritize geoengineering will be quite different between the two sets of countries on a number of issues. For the most part, developed countries have driven the conversation on geoengineering governance. Currently Berlin is hosting the world’s first major geoengineering conference where Oxford’s Professor Steve Rayner unveiled a draft proposal to create the first serious framework for governing future geoengineering experiments.
One thing that was interesting and humbling to watch was to see where each of us ranked the importance of our country’s leadership on geoengineering governance. Not surprisingly, the majority of us seemed to think that our country or region would be critical players in this field. Hashing these conversations in the open helped me to question certain paradigms and assumptions that I hold as an American, especially as it relates to international relations.
MH & JS: Do you think geoengineering will become an important topic for major American think tanks such as the Wilson Center in the near future? What kinds of expertise do these institutions need to acquire in order to effectively study such an issue area?
SS: Currently there has been relatively little attention paid to geoengineering at major American think tanks, but I think that this will change if we continue to experience severe climate impacts. If we continue to face roadblocks in fighting climate change, which in the US we are facing domestically, geoengineering could become less of an abstract idea and more of a possible last resort.
As someone who works on environment and energy issues at an American think tank, I think we need to do a much better job engaging scientists. There’s a big gap between the natural/physical sciences and public policy. Sometimes it seems like scientists and policymakers or in my case, those seeking to inform policy-making, speak completely different languages. While it may seem overly ambitious, I would love to see more prominent natural and physical scientists do a short research-policy fellowships at think tanks. Of course, for this to happen there would need to be the right incentives in place financially and professionally. A program that I think that tries to get at bridging science and policy is the AAAS fellowship which places scientists at federal agencies such as the State Department at USAID. It would be great to see a think tank version of this.
MH & JS: Being Chinese-American and having worked extensively on China’s environmental, food and public health issues, how would you describe your position and experience in a program like GGF?
SS: Participating in GGF has been an incredible learning experience. As a Chinese-American, I sometimes feel caught between being the “American” and the “Chinese,” which fuels my interest in intercultural communication. Increasingly, the global community faces looming threats – such as cyber warfare and climate change – that render geographic boundary lines feckless. Thus tackling these global governance challenges requires navigating diplomatically with multi-stakeholders from many different countries and cultures. .
GGF has given me a taste of how difficult it can be to form international consensus – each country has its own, unique geopolitical concerns and sociocultural contexts. History matters. It impacts a nation’s psyche through which its citizens interpret the world.
It is great to build knowledge networks and friendships with people from China, India, Germany, Japan, and other Americans. And while it has been a great learning experience, we are also having fun along the way. I am so excited to be able to travel to the home countries of those in our working group and also to have them come to Washington DC. There’s something about traveling in a country which helps you better understand the various factors that influence that country’s perspective on an issue. GGF is a unique program like no other.
Susan Chan Shifflett is program associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum (CEF) and a Global Governance Futures 2025 fellow. The views expressed are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum.