Who would control geoengineering?

Sasha Ilnyckyj's eyes

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

21 thoughts on “Who would control geoengineering?”

  1. hello….i’m sorry but….they are already doing it…..it’s call “atmospheric geoengineering”…..chemical trails people….”chemtrails”…..they mix something with the jet fuel…….look in the sky people THEY ARE ALREADY DOING IT



    they are trying to create an artificial sunscreen.

    geoengineering it’s REAL, and it’s happening right now

  2. Contrail
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Contrails (short for “condensation trails”) or vapour trails are visible trails of condensed water vapour made by the exhaust of aircraft engines. As the hot exhaust gases cool in the surrounding air they may precipitate a cloud of microscopic water droplets. If the air is cold enough, this trail will comprise tiny ice crystals.

    The wingtip vortices which trail from the wingtips and wing flaps of aircraft are sometimes partly visible due to condensation in the cores of the vortices. Each vortex is a mass of spinning air and the air pressure at the centre of the vortex is very low. These wingtip vortices are unrelated to the exhaust from the engines.

    Depending on atmospheric conditions, contrails may be visible for only a few seconds or minutes, or may persist for many hours.

  3. Chemtrail conspiracy theory
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The chemtrail conspiracy theory holds that some contrails are actually chemicals or biological agents deliberately sprayed at high altitudes for a purpose undisclosed to the general public. Versions of the chemtrail conspiracy theory circulating on the internet and radio talk shows theorize that the activity is directed by government officials. As a result, federal agencies have received thousands of complaints from people who have demanded an explanation.[2] The existence of chemtrails has been repeatedly denied by government agencies and scientists around the world.

    The United States Air Force has stated that the theory is a hoax which “has been investigated and refuted by many established and accredited universities, scientific organizations, and major media publications”. The British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated that chemtrails “are not scientifically recognised phenomena”. The Canadian Government House Leader has stated that “The term ‘chemtrails’ is a popularized expression, and there is no scientific evidence to support their existence.”

    The term chemtrail is derived from “chemical trail” in the similar fashion that contrail is an abbreviation for condensation trail. It does not refer to common forms of aerial spraying such as crop dusting, cloud seeding or aerial firefighting. The term specifically refers to aerial trails allegedly caused by the systematic high-altitude release of chemical substances not found in ordinary contrails, resulting in the appearance of supposedly uncharacteristic sky tracks. Believers of this theory speculate that the purpose of the chemical release may be for global dimming, population control, weather control, or biowarfare and claim that these trails are causing respiratory illnesses and other health problems.

  4. Geoengineering
    We all want to change the world
    Dealing with climate change might mean tinkering with the oceans and the atmosphere. Those who could do so would like the regulations to be clear

    Mar 31st 2010 | ASILOMAR | From The Economist print edition

    In retrospect, the Asilomar meeting may come to be seen as a step towards that respectable system, but probably only a small one. The participants did not produce clear recommendations, but they generally endorsed a set of five overarching principles for the regulation of the field that were presented recently to the British Parliament by Steve Rayner, a professor at the Saïd Business School, in Oxford.

    The “Oxford principles”, as they are known, hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.

    The conference’s organising committee is now working on a further statement of principles, to be released later. Meanwhile Britain’s main scientific academy, the Royal Society, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, which has members from around 90 countries, are planning further discussions that will culminate at a meeting to be held this November.

  5. Mother Earth Has a Fever
    Should geoengineering tests be governed by the principles of medical ethics?
    By Eli Kintisch
    Posted Thursday, April 22, 2010, at 9:41 AM ET

    Nearly 200 scientists from 14 countries met last month at the famed Asilomar retreat center outside Monterey, Calif., in a very deliberate bid to make history. Their five-day meeting focused on setting up voluntary ground rules for research into cloud-brightening, giant algae blooms, and other massive-scale interventions to cool the planet. It’s unclear how significant the meeting will turn out to be, but the intent of its organizers was unmistakable: By choosing Asilomar, they hoped to summon the spirit of a groundbreaking meeting of biologists that took place on the same site in 1975. Back then, scientists with bushy sideburns and split collars—the forefathers of the molecular revolution, it turned out—established principles for the safe and ethical study of deadly pathogens.

    The planners of Asilomar II, as they called it, hoped to accomplish much the same for potentially dangerous experiments in geoengineering. Instead of devising new medical treatments for people, the scientists involved in planet-hacking research are after novel ways to treat the Earth. The analogy of global warming to a curable disease was central to the discussions at the meeting. Climate scientist Steve Schneider of Stanford talked about administering “planetary methadone to get over our carbon addiction.” Others debated what “doses” of geoengineering would be necessary. Most crucially, the thinkers at Asilomar focused on the idea that medical ethics might provide a framework for balancing the risks and benefits of all this new research.

    What would it mean to apply the established principles of biomedical research to the nascent field of geoengineering? The ethicists at Asilomar—particularly David Winickoff from Berkeley and David Morrow from the University of Chicago—began with three pillars laid out in the landmark 1979 Belmont Report. The first, respect for persons, says that biomedical scientists should obtain “informed consent” from their test subjects. The second, beneficence, requires that scientists assess the risks and benefits of a given test before they start. The third, justice, invokes the rights of research subjects to whatever medical advances result from the testing. (The people who are placed at risk should be the same ones who might benefit from a successful result.)

  6. The geography of geoengineering

    Jul 20th 2010, 21:39 by The Economist online

    IN DISCUSSIONS of climate change it is an article of faith that there are no winners, only losers. This is in part an expression of bien-pensant solidarity, but it is also realistic. It recognises the degree to which current human arrangements—farming practices, positioning of cities, etc—are adapted to current climatic conditions, and that shifts in those conditions will impose transition costs even if not in absolute terms dreadful. It also acknowledges the world’s ever greater level of interdependency. If the local effects of climate change in Syldavia, say, are pleasing to the residents, those benefits can still be offset by a loss in trade with the much worse affected Ruritania, or through conflict over water resources with now-parched Borduria, or by influxes of refugees from Vulgaria, and so on.

    Underlying all this is a concern about uncertainty. There are various places where small shifts in climate might seem locally desirable. But uncertainties in both climate science—how strongly, and with what geographic pattern of effects, does the earth respond to increased greenhouse gases?—and political economy—what levels of greenhouse gas will the earth be subjected to?—make it impossible to guarantee the small shifts that people in those places might like. They might well instead end up with larger changes they liked much less. Better to assume that everyone is a loser, because thanks to the uncertainties it is undoubtedly the case that everyone could be.

    In discussing geoengineering schemes, though, talk of winners and losers is rife. Increasingly, the question asked about any scheme to alter the climate in a way that acts to counter greenhouse warming—by scattering sulphates in the stratosphere to cut down incoming sunlight, for example—has been “whose hand will be on the thermostat?” The assumption has been that while geoengineering schemes might help some people and places they will harm others, and that this will lead to inequity and conflict.

  7. “An updated version of [The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques] ENMOD could require anyone funding a geoengineering project to post an environmental assurance bond (PDF) big enough to pay for a reasonable-worst-case catastrophe. (“Sulfate dust blows up the planet” wouldn’t count, but stopping the monsoon might.) The people issuing and applying for the bonds might well have unique insights about potential risks, and if they were forced to have skin in the game, they could feel some pressure to use them.

  8. Nature | Comment
    Environmental science: Good governance for geoengineering
    Phil Macnaghten

Journal name: Nature
    Volume: 479, Page: 293
    Date published: (17 November 2011)
    Published online 16 November 2011

    Phil Macnaghten and Richard Owen describe the first attempt to govern a climate-engineering research project.

    Climate-engineering research must have strong governance if it is to proceed safely, openly and responsibly1, 2. But what this means in practice is not clear. The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) study demonstrates the difficult judgements involved. As chairman of the panel that supported decisions by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as to whether and how this project should proceed (P.M.), and the architect of the project’s governance process (R.O.), we draw lessons from these challenges.
    In mid-September 2011, SPICE announced the go-ahead for the United Kingdom’s first field trial of climate-engineering technology. SPICE aims to assess whether the injection of sulphur particles into the stratosphere would mimic the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions and provide a possible means to mitigate global warming. An equipment test — spraying water at a height of 1 kilometre — was proposed (see ‘SPICE field trial’). No climate engineering would result from the test, but response to the announcement was dramatic, and the project was soon at the centre of a storm of criticism.

    Careful review

    On 26 September 2011, the EPSRC, one of the study’s main funders, postponed the trial after a review. Later the same day, the council received a letter and open petition3, also sent to UK energy and climate-change secretary Chris Huhne and signed by more than 50 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil-society organizations, demanding that the project be cancelled. The signatories saw the research as a first, unacceptable step towards a fix that would deflect political and scientific action away from reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Others, by contrast, saw the research as urgently needed to find possible ways of coping with climate change4. The question at the heart of this debate was: should work in this controversial field proceed at all, and if so, under what conditions?

  9. Environmental controversy erupts on Canada’s Pacific coast

    Raveena Aulakh
    Environment reporter

    The Pacific Ocean, just off Canada’s west coast, has a new suspect ingredient: 100 tonnes of iron sulphate.

    An American entrepreneur with a controversial past in geoengineering dumped the iron dust into the Pacific near the Haida Gwaii islands in July after allegedly telling local villagers that the “experiment” was a salmon restoration project, according to ETC Group, an international environmental watchdog with offices in Canada.

    Russ George, a U.S. businessman, “blatantly violated” two international moratoria when he dumped the iron dust, Jim Thomas of ETC told the Star on Monday — a UN convention and the London Convention on the disposal of wastes at sea.

    “There are very clear international agreements that there is (to be) no ocean fertilization,” he said. “Except if the permit (is) granted in very limited set of circumstances. It didn’t happen in this case.”

    Ocean iron fertilization — a highly controversial practice — means stimulating plankton blooms in open water, which then seize carbon from the atmosphere and, on sinking to the bottom of the ocean, store it away. Earlier experiments, about a dozen mostly done by universities, have shown mixed results.

    George did not respond to requests for comment from the Star but told the Guardian the two moratoria are a “mythology” and do not apply to his project.

  10. Oh good. I was hoping wealthy liars with no respect for international law, acting on their own initiative, would take the lead in experimenting with climate modification.

  11. Reaching for the sunshade: July 2030
    What if geoengineering goes rogue?
    Efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions may fall short. Might some countries try to fix things a different way?

    Countries opposed to the idea might respond by developing counter-geoengineering programmes. They could either shoot down geoengineering planes or, more tactfully, build a second fleet to deliver a separate stratospheric payload to neutralise the sunshade (either by reacting with the SO2 to break it down, or by making the sulphate particles clump together and rain out faster). The development of counter-geoengineering tools might provide a deterrent against the unilateral deployment of a sunshade.

  12. If the world as a whole were able to design a solar-geoengineering scheme, studies suggest it could come up with one that provided climate benefits to almost everyone and serious problems to almost nobody. A plausible way to use such an optimal scheme might be to offset the temperature rise caused by overshooting the carbon budget. That would provide a sort of breathing space to allow the excess CO2 to be drawn down more slowly and cheaply than would be necessary if its warming effects were actually being felt. A comparatively gentle acceleration of chemical weathering, rather than a huge investment in dac or other schemes, might prove sufficient. As those measures slowly wore the overshoot down the solar geoengineering could be reduced. When the CO2 level was low enough it would be phased out completely, leaving behind a stable climate.

    But the world as a whole might not get to choose the wisest path. A small group of countries, or even a single large one, could undertake a solar-geoengineering scheme unilaterally. Such a club would be likely to optimise its own interests rather than those of the world. It might, for example, choose to cool some places to a degree that, because of geoengineering’s effects on the water cycle, risked desiccating others. That might lead to resentment, rancour or reprisals.

    Nor would any given set of solar geoengineers be sure to get things their own way. The late Marty Weitzman, a pioneering economist of climate change, pointed out that though emission reductions (and by implication negative emissions), because of their cost, have a free-rider problem, solar geoengineering, because it looks cheap, has a “free-driver” problem. Where free-rider problems lead to underprovision (countries are unwilling to commit to cutting emissions when others do not, as 26 years of cops has made clear) free-driver problems may lead to overprovision. Solar geoengineering looks cheap enough that countries wanting more of it can provide it unilaterally, whatever others think.

    This implies that, other things being equal, the level of solar geoengineering would be a trade-off between the amount that the most enthusiastic countries wanted and the amount that the least enthusiastic would endure before taking decisive action, quite possibly through force of arms. Another game of chicken.


  13. A Startup Is Releasing Particles Into the Atmosphere To Tweak the Climate

    A startup claims it has launched weather balloons that may have released reflective sulfur particles in the stratosphere, potentially crossing a controversial barrier in the field of solar geoengineering. […] Some researchers who have long studied the technology are deeply troubled that the company, Make Sunsets, appears to have moved forward with launches from a site in Mexico without any public engagement or scientific scrutiny. It’s already attempting to sell “cooling credits” for future balloon flights that could carry larger payloads. Several researchers MIT Technology Review spoke with condemned the effort to commercialize geoengineering at this early stage. Some potential investors and customers who have reviewed the company’s proposals say that it’s not a serious scientific effort or a credible business but more of an attention grab designed to stir up controversy in the field.

  14. Toward Dangerous US Unilateralism on Solar Geoengineering

    As social scientists, we are concerned about the impact of the National Academies Report on solar geoengineering. It has already set into motion a major, federally coordinated national research program in the United States to develop this dangerous technology. We emphasize that scientists and researchers are not the ones who will be making decisions on deployment, so research and development should not proceed without integrating broader international perspectives. If the US government does not pause to establish effective international governance and public participation before investing more in solar geoengineering, then the NAS report will have – regardless of the intentions of the committee – opened the door for the US to unilaterally shape and advance the global development of solar geoengineering.

  15. The Dangers of Mainstreaming Solar Geoengineering: A critique of the National Academies Report

    The U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) 2021 report on solar geoengineering research is a political intervention in global climate politics. Although the NASEM report explicitly acknowledges the risks of unilateral research without broad-based public participation and global governance, the report minimizes these concerns by recommending that the U.S. act swiftly to establish a publicly funded national research program. By providing details for how the research program should be designed, the report contradicts its own recommendations for an inclusive and international process. By mainstreaming solar geoengineering, the report risks increasing the likelihood of international conflict and unilateral deployment, and further exacerbates delays in prioritizing other climate actions. Instead of expanding research on global manipulation of the earth’s climate, the United States, like other countries around the world, should commit to multilateral, coordinated efforts to phase out fossil fuels, advance global climate action, and invest in climate justice.

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