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: In the light of successive failed attempts to tackle high carbon dioxide emissions at a global level, do you see geoengineering playing an increasingly important role in national responses to climate change?
RL: Successive failed attempts to tackle high CO2 emissions at a global level might contribute to an increasing interest in geoengineering options, but in my opinion geoengineering will still remain questionable as a favored means to address climate change compared to other community-based and/or ecosystem-based adaptation solutions. The recent US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change has in a way set a good example for both developed and developing countries as a global effort against climate change while setting the tone for the coming 2015 Paris talks. According to Zou Ji, deputy director of China's National Centre for Climate Change Strategy, “if China-US cooperation boosts multilateral global governance and ensures widespread participation and joint action, it will have a wide-reaching impact on the global low-carbon transition.” Nonetheless, since the pledge is not legally binding for both countries, we have yet to see to what extent the announcement will be implemented. And from my personal perception, adaptation will still be very much emphasized in terms of global climate change strategies, particularly in the developing countries, where greenhouse gas emissions are low while their people are being seriously impacted by climate change in the foreseeable future.
MH & JS: You have previously worked in environment conservation in Tibet. Do you see potential environmental risks as the principal drawback to geoengineering?
RL: As the “roof of the world,” the Tibetan Plateau contains the world’s third-largest store of ice and is home to about 10 million people in China and millions of people living in downstream areas. At the same time, this place is facing serious environmental disturbance due to natural disasters and global climate change. Environmental challenges like extreme weather, melting glaciers, shrinking water resources and worsening living conditions are hindering the local people’s livelihoods and threatening the overall long-term development of the Tibetan Plateau at both community and regional levels. Nonetheless, science also suggests that due to intense complexity and sensitively in highland climatic systems, it cannot be generalized that the impacts of climate change are purely negative. It is said that parts of alpine grasslands in the Mount Everest region are expanding while degrading in other parts. Without a clear and thorough understanding of the environmental risks of geoengineering and its impact on such a complex environmentally sensitive region - the Hindu Kush Himalayas - it will certainly provoke huge debates or even protests in the region against geoengineering, which might bring in unexpected ecological and environmental disasters. And currently, most climate efforts in the region still concentrate on community- and ecosystem-based adaptation approaches.
MH & JS: In your view, would resorting to geoengineering in the fight against global warming represent a failure of political decision-making or, rather, a reasonable, efficient strategy for tackling the problem?
RL: The answer of this question very much depends on how people perceive and frame geoengineering. For politicians and climate policy advocates, resorting to geoengineering may sound like a reflection of the failure of political decision-making because they may deem geoengineering as the last resort that could ever happen to tackle climate change challenges. But for practitioners, engineers or scientists, it may be considered as a supplement for tackling climate change because many of them do not take into account climate politics as a crucial factor that affects how to address global issues like climate change. The information gap and asymmetry in the dialogue over climate change has contributed to the politicization of the problem that no one can eschew. With that being said, effective, accountable and reasonable climate change communication turns out to be a critical basis that helps set the tone for geoengineering discussions. Climate communication is an approach through which accredited information about climate change could be appropriately conveyed to a concerned audience. Gaps in information, approaches and immediate knowledge and sensitivity levels of concerned audiences have made climate change a bittersweet issue for certain groups of people to suffer or to enjoy. Communication efforts should thus focus on constructing bridges to fill in those gaps. However, it is really difficult to forge such a likely scheme as that of an international consensus in combating ozone depletion, because climate change is an issue so sophisticated and has extended way over a dimension that ozone depletion issue could reach. Being closely bound to climate change, geoengineering will also face issues in terms of communication approaches. In the end, the level of technical discussions would therefore comply with how public opinions evolve.
MH & JS: In your opinion, how likely is an effective governance structure for the practice and regulation of geoengineering? What are the main obstacles in its way?
RL: It is likely such a governance structure will form as long as there is a dedicated group of people who work continuously on the issue. They may, amongst themselves, come up with certain regulations or codes of practice, which is how the current situation stands. And later, if such practices in geoengineering experiments give rise to certain social and environmental concerns among the public, policy-makers or other concerned stakeholders, a call for a governance structure is likely to emerge. However, whether this governance structure will be effective remains questionable. The main factor influencing the formation of a governance structure might be how such technology or practices in the form of geoengineering experiments are troubling the world order on political, economic, social and environmental fronts. Take natural resource exploration and exploitation as an example. Such activities have a regional impact on economic development and global impact on biodiversity conservation. Only when such activities reach a level that will attract attention to the depletion of resources and/or distorts the overall development and conservation nexus will a global governance structure such as the Convention on Biological Diversity begin to emerge.
MH & JS: From your experience, how can NGOs best contribute to public debate about geoengineering and the search for alternative approaches to climate change?
RL: It truly depends on how people within the NGO community perceive geoengineering, i.e. as a technical or political approach to address climate change. Few NGOs currently discuss geoengineering. If there are not many eye-catching events related to geoengineering, most NGO campaign efforts will stick to what they are most adept with such as long-standing climate change negotiations, clean energy, green funding, community development, conservation, poverty alleviation, etc. The outcomes of these issues are easier to be made use of to meet their strategies and missions. NGOs can serve as a bridge between the general public, policymakers and scientific groups. However, how relevant information regarding geoengineering and other options of combating climate change is collected, formed, constructed and conveyed through NGOs will by and large affect the conceptualization process of public opinions towards geoengineering issues. In this regard, effective climate communication again becomes critically conducive to global efforts in combating climate change.
When speaking of conveying information, we enter a discussion of power that implies not only an ability to collect information but also the art of diffusing information in a well-crafted manner. In this respect, media as well as multiple media-oriented NGOs, both traditional and emerging, play a significant role in the course of disseminating information.
The information appears to be out there but we need a means, a channel or a bridge to get access to it. On the two sides of a communication gulf stand the information holder and a targeted audience. However, the bridge above the gulf is not always straight and wide but rather winding where accidents of information freight traffic happen frequently. The bridge creates interchanges and is becoming more and more complex so that when information holders want to drop by the other side, they get lost, too. Here comes a question: Who are the constructors and builders of this bridge? It seems there are many contractors who want a deal to construct part of the bridge, and the focus turns out to be how to win a contract sealed regardless its feasibility and pragmatism. Worst of all, it is not a toll free bridge yet. Information is therefore well mass-packaged and transported through these interchanges but how much of it is well delivered remains vague.
In sum, when the majority of “climate stakeholders” - no matter an individual or a nation state - talk about climate change, they speak less of issues regarding its physical characteristics than of its social implications because “whoever started the trouble should end it.” All of us are involved in the process of climate change. Either we are a troublemaker or a problem solver, fundamentally we are the ones who started the trouble because current climate problems are inevitably due to human activities. In this regard, one of the keys to addressing the issue relies on how to effectively and appropriately communicate among groups of varied interests. By doing this we should be able to bridge gaps between high profile discussions and low profile actions against climate change, and make the issue more personally sensitive and significant.
Rongkun Liu is currently a technical advisor for the Koshi Basin Programme at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and a Global Governance Futures 2025 Fellow. The views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the organization he belongs to.