The Regulation of Geoengineering - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Dr Adam Corner (GEO 06)


  1.  In their recent report on geoengineering the Royal Society commented that "the acceptability of geoengineering will be determined as much by social, legal and political issues as by scientific and technical factors".[5] We agree fully with this statement and have recently completed a paper which will be published in the journal Environment in January 2010 outlining some of the social and ethical implications of pursuing research into geoengineering techniques.[6] A key consideration will be the public acceptability of both specific geoengineering proposals themselves and the governance arrangements set in place. Research in the UK and elsewhere on the public acceptance of the risks of new technologies (such as nuclear power or biotechnology) shows clearly that people raise a range of generic concerns about new technologies. These include concerns over: long-term uncertainties; who will benefit; arrangements for control and governance; and who to trust to regulate any risks.[7] Geoengineering is unlikely to be any different in this regard.

  2.  We agree that work on the technical feasibility of geoengineering should not begin prior to a thorough evaluation of governance arrangements for research. Our most fundamental concern is that a programme of public engagement should be an important component feeding into governance and research priorities. Thus, the first challenge for geoengineering governance is to pursue an international programme of upstream public engagement. This programme of social research needs to meaningfully engage as broad a range of affected publics and stakeholders as possible. While conducting upstream public engagement is a significant challenge, there are now precedents for this type of work in the field of nanotechnology.[8] Recent attempts to engage with public opinion towards climate change governance in advance of the UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen have also suggested that large-scale, international engagement is possible.[9]

  3.  Particular proposals to geoengineer the climate may well encounter objections from groups and individuals in society on social or ethical grounds, and it would be unwise to commence a technical research programme (or commit significant resources) without fully considering these objections. Equally a programme of public engagement may reveal support for limited and controlled research into geoengineering. The critical issue is that such views play a meaningful and legitimate role in the initial decisions made about research into any technical programme. The Natural Environment Research Council, together with Sciencewise, has recently announced a geoengineering public engagement initiative for the UK, and this is to be welcomed. A legitimate criticism of much public engagement conducted in the UK in the past however is lack of a route to influence policy. Accordingly, we urge that the results of the NERC/Sciencewise engagement process should be considered seriously by policy makers.

  4.  In the remainder of the memorandum, we outline some of the key social and ethical questions that geoengineering will raise (as we see it) and their relevance for governance.

  5.  It is clear that humans have the capacity to geoengineer and have done so on many previous occasions. But the intentional manipulation of the climate has not previously been attempted, and the intentionality of geoengineering proposals might demarcate them from previous anthropogenic interference in the global climate. This asymmetry between intended and unintended acts is clearly observed in law, medical ethics and military conduct.[10] Any governance arrangements should seek to reflect this distinction.

  6.  Some proposals for geoengineering, such as release of atmospheric particulates, have clear international implications. Other proposals, such as localised carbon reduction efforts, are less problematic in this regard. Any governance arrangements will need to reflect this heterogeneity amongst the technical options.

  7.  The UK and the US have a long history of international cooperation, but how will the perspectives of people in the poorest countries be taken into account? While the current collaboration with the US Congressional Committee on geoengineering governance might form the first step in a process of more widespread international cooperation, it is important that the debate over (and governance of) geoengineering is not confined to nations that are industrialised, wealthy and politically influential. People in the poorest nations are often the ones most at risk from climate change, and may also bear a disproportionate burden of hazard if unanticipated consequences of geoengineering deployments do emerge. Hence every effort must be made to develop a broad international consensus on geoengineering governance.

  8.  Contemporary research on geoengineering has its roots in military strategies developed for weather modification. While geoengineering's military history does not preclude benevolent uses, it is clear that climate modification schemes come with a potential for global conflict that should be taken seriously. Conflict might arise due to the unilateral pursuance of a climate modification programme by a nation perceived to be placing its own interests above those of other nations. It is even conceivable that a wealthy individual or private company might develop geoengineering technologies. Picking apart the climatic effects that could be attributed to a rival nation's geoengineering from those which would have occurred naturally would be extremely difficult. The scope for conflict—even in the absence of intentional provocation—would be significant. This underscores the importance of developing a broad and inclusive international consensus—and being willing to accept the possibility that the consensus might not be favourable towards some forms of geoengineering research.

  9.  Geoengineering might be considered a "dangerous distraction" from the urgent task of mitigation through more traditional methods of emissions reductions. The Royal Society refer to this as a "moral hazard" argument—the phenomenon whereby people who feel "insured" against a risk may take greater risks (ie mitigate less) than they would otherwise be prepared to. Whether geoengineering will suppress individual and group incentives for action on climate change (or alternatively galvanise some sections of society) is something which can only be resolved through careful empirical work. This emphasises the need for detailed social research on geoengineering's impact on attitudes to climate change, as well as behavioural intentions and responses. The Social and Economic Research Council would be the best placed to lead any sponsorship of such social research.

  10.  We conclude that the first and most urgent task of governance is to initiate a large-scale and international programme of upstream engagement with as broad a range of affected publics as possible. The outcomes of this public engagement programme should form part of the evidence-base for determining whether a large-scale technical research programme begins at all.

December 2009

4   The Understanding Risk Research Group is based at Cardiff University and studies public attitudes, engagement with, and governance of a range of risk issues including climate change, nuclear power, biotechnology and nanotechnologies. See: Back

5   The Royal Society. Geoengineering the climate: Science, governance and uncertainty. (Science Policy Centre Report 10/09, 2009, pp ix). Back

6   Corner, A & Pidgeon, N (in press). Geoengineering the climate: The ethical and social implications. Environment Back

7   See eg Risk-Analysis, Perception and Management: Report of a Royal Society Study Group, London, The Royal Society, pp 89-134; also Bickerstaff et al (2008) Constructing responsibility for risk(s). Environment and Planning A, 40, 1312-1330. Back

8   Pidgeon, N F, et al (2009) Deliberating the risks of nanotechnology for energy and health applications in the US and UK. Nature Nanotechnology, Vol 4, Feb 2009, 95-98; Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Nanotechnologies for the Targeted Delivery of Therapeutic Agents & Nanotechnologies for Diagnostics: Summary of Public Consultation Findings (Swindon: EPSRC, 2008). Back

9   World Wide Views on Global Warming, (accessed 2 October 2009). Back

10   D Jamieson. "Ethics and Intentional Climate Change." Climatic Change 33 (1999): 323-336. Back

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