Memorandum submitted by Dr Jason Blackstock
THE INTERNATIONAL POLITICS OF GEOENGINEERING RESEARCH
1. The recent scientific reviews of geoengineering
found existing concepts to be fraught with uncertainties and potential
negative side effects, making geoengineering unsuitable as an
alternative to dramatic emission reductions.
2. As the global risk of unabated climate
change could prove far worse than the risk of geoengineering,
expanded research into geoengineering as a possible recourse for
limiting at least the most severe potential climate change impacts
3. A broadly accessible, transparent and
international political processone that particularly engages
vulnerable developing countriesis needed to develop international
regulation and coordination of geoengineering research. Such a
process will necessarily take many years to develop and evolve,
and should be informed by further scientific and socio-political
research conducted in the interim.
4. Countries commencing geoengineering research
prior to an internationally agreed framework being in place need
to make voluntary commitments to full international collaboration
and transparency. National geoengineering research that fails
to make or meet such commitments could spark international mistrust
over future intentions, and disrupt the already inadequate progress
toward essential mitigation.
5. This remainder of this memorandum describes
the two main categories of geoengieering, the main stages of research
that may be undertaken for solar radiation management (SRM) geoengineering,
and the international political issues each stage of SRM research
might raise. The focus on SRM has been chosen because the international
political issues it presents are more accute than for carbon dioxide
removal (CDR) geoengineering (though the general issues raised
should be considered for both categories).
6. Jason Blackstock is a scientist and international
affairs scholar whose research presently focuses on evaluating
the climatic and international political implications of geoengineering.
He is a lead author of the report "Climate Engineering Responses
to Climate Emergencies" (2009), a prominent scientific review
study of solar radiation management geoengineering via stratospheric
aerosol injection. Jason has received his Master of Physics (Edinburgh,
2001), his PhD in physics (Alberta, 2005), his Graduate Certificate
in International Security (Stanford, 2006), and his Master of
Public Administration (Harvard, 2008).
7. Despite mounting evidence that climate
change could be more severe and rapid than estimated by the IPCC
Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), progress toward globally reducing
carbon emissions remains alarmingly slow. Concern over the global
failure to act on climate change has been the dominant motivation
behind scientists' recent convening of several prominent reviews
of geoengineeringthe intentional, large-scale alteration
of the climate systemas a potential recourse for moderating
the impacts of climate change. These scientific reviews (particularly
the Royal Society and Novim reports on geoengineering in 2009)
found existing geoengineering concepts to be fraught with uncertainties
and potential negative side effects, making them unsuitable as
an alternative to dramatic emission reductions. Nevertheless,
they recommend greatly expanding research, as the risks of unabated
climate change could prove far worse than the risks of geoengineering.
8. As geoengineering schemes are now attracting
national political attention and research funding in several developed
countries, the implications for international climate politics
need to be carefully considered.
Similar to climate change, for many geoengineering schemes both
the benefits and the potential risk of severe unintended consequences
would be unequally distributed between regions or nations. As
a result, national geoengineering research programs could spark
international mistrust over future intentions, and serve to further
disrupt the already inadequate progress toward essential mitigation
commitments. To limit such tensions and preserve options for future
cooperation, countries starting geoengineering research should
make early preventive commitments to full international collaboration
and transparency, and avoid any appearance of pursuing national
interests at the expense of global public welfare.
9. Geoengineering schemes can be divided
into two categories, with very different characteristics: carbon
dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM). By
removing the cause from the atmosphere, CDR schemes such as direct
air capture or ocean fertilization would be effective at diminishing
climate change impacts. But technical challenges and large uncertainties
surrounding large-scale CDR deployment, along with the long delays
in the climatic response to carbon forcing, mean it would take
at least decades for CDR to have notable climatic effect. While
important for long-term negative emission scenarios, CDR cannot
offer rapid climatic influence if severe climate change manifests
too quickly for adaptation to avoid substantial damages.
10. Conversely, SRM could substantially
influence the climate in monthsbut with much greater uncertainty
about the net climatic effects. SRM schemes such as stratospheric
aerosols and cloud brightening aim to cool the planet by reflecting
a fraction of the incoming sunlight away from Earth. Natural experiments
caused by volcanoes have demonstrated the rapid impact potential
of SRM, and the recent reviews show such schemes should be technically
simple to deploy at low cost relative to mitigation. But these
reviews also stress that SRM would at best unevenly ameliorate
regional climatic change, and may generate serious unintended
consequences. For example, SRM could produce droughts with severe
implications for regional and global food production, and delay
the recovery of the ozone layer by decades, while doing almost
nothing to address ocean acidification. This makes SRM unsuitable
as an alternative to mitigation.
11. In spite of the limitations and risks,
avoiding SRM research would be a mistake. The ability to rapidly
influence the climate means SRM might be the only recourse should
a climate crisis materialize. Since severe climate change could
bring about such national or regional crises within decades, prudence
suggests we should improve our understanding of the likely feasibility,
effectiveness and dangers of SRM interventions. Without prior
research, uninformed and rash unilateral action by less responsible
actors becomes more likely. Moreover, near-term authoritative
research will help discredit ungrounded fringe claims that SRM
could provide an alternative to dramatic near-term emission reductions.
Finally, establishing good governance of SRM requires good understanding
of the schemes and risks to be governed, which first requires
12. But who should conduct this research,
how should it be managed and who would control any generated technologies?
These are politically loaded questions with international significance,
particularly given that the rapid impact, easy implementation
and low cost characteristics of SRM schemes make unilateral deployment
a very real possibility for a large number of countries.
13. The table below summarizes the stages
of SRM research that could be undertaken, along with the environmental
risks and political issues each raises. Until recently, SRM research
had been limited to model studies published in the open literature.
With no environmental impact and the generated knowledge being
transparent and public, such research raises minimal political
issues. The main critique of this research is that it could encourage
complacency on mitigation by suggesting an illusory alternative.
However recent research suggests the opposite may occur; by appearing
frighteningly risky to the public, SRM might reduce such complacency
by creating a desire to avoid needing it. But emerging stages
of research may not prove so politically innocuous.
14. The increased scientific attention stratospheric
aerosols and cloud brightening have been receiving has recently
sparked the development and subscale field testing of SRM deployment
technologies. Even lab-based development of SRM technologies raises
the prospect that national or corporate interests might try (or
just be perceived as trying) to control or profiteer from nascent
SRM technologies. And a national security framing of emerging
SRM research, especially if classified, would dangerously provoke
such international perceptions. Nonetheless, in 2009 the
U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a
meeting to consider pursuing geoengineering research highlights
the potential for such developments.
15. As technology development graduates
to the stage of subscale field tests, these same issues could
be further exacerbatedand the first such tests have very
recently been conducted in Russia (Izrael, 2009). Field experiments
designed to have demonstrably negligible environmental and transboundary
risks are valuable for feasibility testing deployment technologies,
and for exploring local-scale physical, chemical and biological
interactions that could damage the environment when scaled up.
But the signals that unilateral subscale tests, no matter how
environmentally benign, might send to the international community
need to be very carefully considered.
16. The controversy surrounding an Indo-German
ocean fertilization (CDR) experiment conducted in early 2009 demonstrates
the political sensitivities any geoengineering experiments can
evoke (Nature Geoscience Editorial, 2009). At the core of this
controversy was also the difficulty of defining politically acceptable
(national and international) scientific standards and oversight
mechanisms for ensuring the environmental and transboundary risks
of nominally subscale geoengineering field tests are in fact "demonstrably
17. Robust understanding of SRM will eventually
require tests with demonstrable climatic impacts. Confidence in
SRM climate model predictions can only come from "poking"
the climate system and comparing the predicted and observed responses.
But due to the natural complexity and variability of the climate
system, signal-to-noise issues will plague the attribution of
climatic impacts and unintended consequences to a particular test.
For any SRM scheme it might prove impossible to test for most
impacts with "pokes" below a scale considered (at least
politically) to constitute deployment of a low-level climatic
intervention. And the testing of multiple SRM schemes by different
groups would only further complicate the situation.
18. Attribution challenges also underlie
another international political challenge facing SRMthat
of liability for real or perceived damages. For example, if the
Asian or African monsoon were to have a weak year following an
SRM testa year at the edge of natural variability, but
still inducing droughts and food shortagesscientific uncertainty
about causation may just exacerbate accusations of responsibility.
There would almost certainly be a global "crisis of legitimacy"
(Victor, 2009) should a SRM climatic impacts test be conducted
without international approval. And since by definition any test
would be an intentional act, even nominally subscale field tests
could open the door for spurious diplomatic, political or legal
disputes (however unscientific) over liability for alleged nonlocal
19. Anticipation of unevenly distributed
benefits and damages could easily steer any international discourse
on development and testing of SRM technologies into disputes over
national interests. Nonpublic SRM research would exacerbate international
mistrust about unilateral control, provoking such disputes and
potentially sparking a proliferation of similarly closed programs.
This could even encourage the development and unilateral testing
of SRM schemes targeted to benefit specific regional climates,
regardless of other impacts. And any such developments could prejudice
many countries against cooperation on broader climate issuesincluding
20. A valuable first step for addressing
some of these issues will be the creation of international norms
and best practices for scientists conducting geoengineering research.
The upcoming Asilomar conference on Climate Intervention Technologies
in March 2010 will bring together ~150 scientists to
begin this process. However, for most political issues the truly
relevant actors are not scientists, but rather the decision makers
representing national (or corporate) interests. Questions regarding
acceptable risks for subscale field tests, if/when/where climatic
impacts testing should begin, or how and by whom SRM technologies
should be managed, cannot and should not be answered by scientists
alone. A broadly accessible, transparent and international political
process is needed to address these issuesone that particularly
engages vulnerable developing country perspectives thus far absent
from SRM discussions. Whether existing frameworks could facilitate
this, and what the target products should be (eg new treaties,
organizations, etc), are open questions that urgently need both
research and international stakeholder consideration.
21. To encourage international climate cooperation,
countries beginning SRM research need to take early steps to encourage
the collective international exploration of SRM as a possible
means for insuring global public welfare in the face of highly
uncertain climate change. This means making several preventive
commitments. First, to foreswear climatic impacts testingand
very conservatively limit subscale field testinguntil approved
by a broad and legitimate international process. Second, to keep
all SRM research, including generated knowledge and technologies,
in the public domain. Third, to integrate all SRM research into
any subsequent international research framework.
22. Given the preexisting mistrust on global
climate issues, further steps should also be taken to foster international
confidence and cooperation. National SRM programs should explicitly
involve international scientists, particularly including those
from vulnerable developing countries. More importantly, these
programs should give priority to research on SRM schemes that
may preserve global public welfare, rather than focusing on narrowly
defined national interests.
23. As national geoengineering research
emerges, these preventive steps cannot guarantee future climate
cooperation. But they would at least limit the new problems this
research heaps on the already strained global climate agenda.
Blackstock, J J et al., Climate Engineering
Responses to Climate Emergencies (Novim, 2009), available
IZRAEL, Y A ET
HYDROLOGY 34, 265 (2009).
McMullen, C P and J Jabbour, Eds., Climate Change
Science Compendium 2009 (U.N. Environment Programme, Nairobi,
Nature Geoscience Editorial, Nature Geoscience
2, 153 (2009).
Shepherd J et al., Geoengineering the climate:
science, governance and uncertainty (The Royal Society, London,
Victor, D G, et al., Foreign Aff. 88,
Dr Jason J Blackstock
Centre for International Governance Innovation, Canada
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis,
Austria (Research Scholar)
1 To the best knowledge of the author, as of the date
of this memo, only the EU and (separately) the UK have
formally announced national level funding for geoengineering research.
Through its framework-7 programme, the EU has funded a multi-institutional
research consortium for ~3yrs to computationally model the science
and potential economics of solar radiation management concepts
(see http://implicc.zmaw.de/for details). Through the Engineering
and Physical Sciences Research Councils' Energy Programme, the
UK has publicly announced £3 million research funding
for geoengineering research. Back