Over at Slate there is an interesting article about the geopolitics of geoengineering: specifically, the ramifications of the fact that any major nation could choose to deliberately modify the planet’s climate. As the author identifies, this is in some sense the reverse of the ordinary climate change problem. So far, the issue has been how to produce a global action when states disagree on what should be done, how quickly it should occur, and who should pay. By contrast, the problems with the politics of geoengineering are making sure that any states that undertake it do so with the interests of all states (and future generations) in mind.
This is especially problematic because the side-effects of geoengineering might fall disproportionately on certain states, probably the ones who would not be in control of the policy. For instance, consider the so-called ‘Pinatubo option’ of particulate injection into the upper atmosphere. It might help cool the planet overall, but could severely disrupt patterns of precipitation and wind. It would also do nothing about the problem of ocean acidification. Who would decide if the possible advantages outweighed the risks? Who would pay for the side effects? Who could decide to shut the system down, if the effects in some places prove too painful?
Another issue with the ‘Pinatubo option’ is that it would need to be constantly maintained to keep working. This could be an advantage, since we could ‘turn it off’ if it proved too problematic. It could also be a disadvantage, since disabling the system would bring about abrupt and dangerous warming.
All this may be moot, if no forms of geoengineering actually work, or if the danger of unintended consequences is sufficient to deter states from trying. That being said, I see geoengineering (regrettably) as a real possibility. If we don’t reduce emissions fast enough and start to really feel the full brunt of climate change, it will become harder and harder to argue against. As such, it is good that we are starting to consider both the physical and political elements of geoengineering now.