March 14, 2013, by Tim Radford
The ocean west of British Columbia was the site of one geoengineering attempt
Image: Stewart Butterfield
EMBARGOED until 1700 GMT on Thursday 14 March Debate continues over whether geoengineering could prove a practicable way of averting the worst impacts of climate change. If it is to do so, a huge research effort will be needed – and who will regulate that? LONDON, 14 March – Two US academics have raised a problem that might seem exquisitely academic: who governs research into geoengineering? Deliberate geoengineering of the planet’s systems to reduce the hazards of global warming has been tentatively on the global science horizon for more a decade – and there have been small-scale trials. The idea has supporters who argue that since there is no serious likelihood that humans will change their ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so there had better be a Plan B, involving perhaps aerosols in the upper atmosphere to screen out sunlight, or spraying to increase low-level ocean cloud cover. There are opponents who argue that the existence of any Plan B could serve as an excuse for not reducing emissions, and thus be self-defeating. Another lobby asks: yes, but why not at least do research to see if such schemes could work at all? But Edward Parson of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles and David Keith of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University use a policy forum in the journal Science to address a different issue: if geoengineering really did reduce climate change risks faster than any other response, it might also have local effects that cause environmental harm, undermine emissions cuts and even trigger international conflict. “Geoengineering requires competent, prudent and legitimate governance”, they argue. “No such governance now exists beyond normal scientific review processes and national law, so geoengineering outside national territories – from small field research to operational deployment – falls under no international legal control.” They put two questions a governance system would need to address. If “large interventions” need more control than small ones, how is the boundary between large and small to be defined? And can scientific self-regulation control small-scale research – or does government have to step in, and if so, how?
Who will gain?
Within these straightforward questions is a whole set of legal brainteasers. Could there be a slippery slope that slid from research to deployment? If so, must there be some control over all geoengineering research, all field research, or all ways in which the environment can be perturbed? Or should governance agreements target geoengineering research but not non-geoengineering research – “distinctions that could be hard to enforce and create incentives to avoid oversight by concealing an activity’s purpose”? And then there is another set of arguments: geoengineering would be just research, like any other, and should not need any special scrutiny, say some. But, the authors point out, a 2012 plan to spread 100 tonnes of iron dust over 10,000 square kilometres of ocean west of British Columbia to stimulate plankton growth was funded by indigenous Haida villagers interested in carbon credits and the restoration of a salmon fishery. It violated no international law, and was apparently begun without the knowledge of the Canadian authorities, but it caused a huge political storm. The authors warn: “Such controversies should be expected because the stark tension inherent in geoengineering’s dual prospect – large risk reduction and grave new risks – breeds polarization. “We thus expect both periodic recurrence of adventurers pushing reckless, scientifically weak projects and rejecting any control, and zealous opponents seeking to prohibit the entire domain of activities. As in so many conflicts, the extremes reinforce each other.” But the present deadlock, they point out, poses real threats to sound management of climate risk. Their argument goes far beyond academic niceties. They argue that if states fail to build co-operation and transparency while the stakes are low, the problem could become, during some future climate change crisis, as difficult and fraught as arms control, “or more so.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.