Can Europe Make It?

Geoengineering won’t unlock the politics of climate change

It is not merely a matter of learning from scientists and modellers, but of generating new forms of knowledge informed by political understanding as much as by scientific understanding.

Olaf Corry Duncan McLaren Nikolaj Kornbech
20 April 2020
4th Session of the UN Environment Assembly
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Screenshot: UN environment assembly

Covid-19 has pushed climate change off the front pages, and the economic downturn resulting from restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic might well continue to draw attention away from it for months ahead.

But climate change is not becoming less urgent. And the pandemic highlights two persistent political problems in addressing climate change: first, political agendas struggle to focus on long-term and emerging threats (in the case of Covid-19, even planning a few weeks ahead seems beyond many politicians); second, economic damage easily becomes an argument to avoid action to protect public health or enhance social justice.

Meanwhile Donald Trump touts hydroxychloroquine as a miracle fix for victims of COVID-19, presumably to distract from his own role in the unfolding catastrophe. Sadly, a search for just such a ‘fix’ for climate change is gathering momentum amongst certain scientists, political activists and media commentators.

A fix for climate change?

In the face of intransigent global climate politics some advocacy for research into geoengineering techniques – such as stratospheric aerosol injection (proposals to mask the effects of warming climates with a veil of particulates distributed in the upper atmosphere – 20 kilometers up) by high-flying airplanes, balloons or powerful artillery – is growing. An important lesson from the Coronacrisis would be that focusing on a cheap and fast ‘fix’ is not the way to deliver adequate action.

So far, most support for geoengineering has been hesitant and careful to highlight risks. Scientists have noted concerns, for example about potential unintended disruption to rainfall patterns and the ozone layer arising from such techniques. Some commentators have highlighted the international conflict potential of developing levers that might directly – but unpredictably – alter weather patterns globally. Still, most research and modelling continues to contribute to an unwarranted presumption that geoengineering could bypass the complex politics of climate change.

In their attempts to inform decision-makers about the potential and risks of geoengineering, model simulation studies of geoengineered interventions tend to look at a few variables — often just temperature and rainfall. They aim to assess whether the climate conditions are improved on average, and sometimes consider whether any regions are made ‘worse off’ from intervening in the climate.

To minimise the likelihood of adverse effects, modellers have explored delicately calibrated scenarios in which aerosol injection is slowly ramped up, and then eased down, or in which aerosols are distributed at specific latitudes or particular times of year. The outputs of such models are portrayed as meaningful for policy, despite the technologies to deliver such interventions being highly speculative, and the implied single global geoengineer acting in the global interest, entirely fictional.

The outputs of such models are portrayed as meaningful for policy, despite the technologies to deliver such interventions being highly speculative, and the implied single global geoengineer acting in the global interest, entirely fictional.

Alluring scenario

The model world and the optimists eager to take it at face value offer an alluring scenario: geoengineering might allow fast and inexpensive action to address the impacts of climate change – and would therefore decisively simplify climate politics. Rather than wrangling endlessly over who should pay for decarbonisation and adaptation, the relatively low costs of geoengineering would shrink the collective action problem to one of restraining rogues and coordinating the ‘responsible’ states acting in the global interest: countries would be keen to use stratospheric aerosols to cool the planet. In theory, any country could do it, perhaps even going it alone.

Our research suggests that such claims and presumptions are misleading and could even be harmful. Integrated climate models sometimes include economics, but never geopolitics. Even if cooling the Earth by spraying the sky is technically feasible – something that cannot be known for sure before it is actually attempted at scale – the dilemmas of politics and justice that have delayed action so far are likely to rear their Medusa heads.

In a climate model laboratory, global warming is dealt with as a purely technical problem. Such analysis can be useful, but remains incomplete. We argue that if political conflicts and justice concerns go on being neglected, idealised assessments of geoengineering are actually more likely to lead to such techniques becoming inescapably mired in political controversy.

Idealised assessments of geoengineering are actually more likely to lead to such techniques becoming inescapably mired in political controversy.

Last year we interviewed climate modellers, diplomats and international negotiators, and civil society organisations (including fieldwork in Nigeria, and at the UN Environment Assembly in Kenya). Our aim was to better understand the emerging politics of geoengineering by putting the technical models and designs back into the hurly-burly of global climate politics.

Our interviews highlighted how modelling studies tend to overlook three simple – but surprisingly consequential – facts about the world: that it is divided up into many different political units, that it is a highly unequal place, and that most people do not care solely about material outcomes when thinking about whether an intervention is unjust or unfair.

Once such factors are brought into consideration it becomes clear – as so often in political contestation – that disagreements are not simply the product of incomplete information. They also reflect clashing world-views and interests. Where you stand depends on where you sit.

Where you sit

This was evident at the negotiations at the 2019 United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi. Here, an initial proposal for a UN study of geoengineering governance was discussed. This was a modest – but short lived – idea. In the face of continued opposition, primarily from the US and Saudi Arabia, the proposal had to be withdrawn. Speaking to and observing the negotiators and NGOs, we saw how their different understandings of what governance should achieve – and what geoengineering even was – made it impossible to agree on any form of governance whatsoever.

We identified three different versions of the geoengineering imaginary. Let’s call them the thermostat, the empire and the paradox.

In Nairobi, we found that some state representatives appeared to be informed mostly by the artificial world of geoengineering models, and therefore considered geoengineering a technical matter that, once ‘proven’ to work in this idealised world, could be safely deployed by policymakers as a ‘global thermostat’ a means to combat global warming as such, independent of historical and social context. These representatives were typically the least favourable towards regulatory governance, believing that more research and development of geoengineering was desirable and should not be constrained.

Others, including many from the global South, situated geoengineering squarely in their experiences of vast global inequalities and starkly different exposure to climate risk. They tended to be extremely sceptical about geoengineering, expecting that it would entrench existing power relations and let actors such as fossil fuel companies carry on with business-as-usual. Some compared it to the history of empire (‘taking control of our rain’) and even sought a pre-emptive ban on geoengineering. Those who did not reject geoengineering entirely called for strict regulation by international bodies.

Others, from both global North and South including several European governments and NGOs, highlighted technical and political uncertainty. In particular, they wanted to thoroughly examine potential side-effects. They typically took a more pragmatic – and precautionary – line towards the idea of geoengineering. The idea of geoengineering was deeply paradoxical – with both potential benefits and risks. Not ready to reject it entirely, they emphasised the need for strong governance and for bringing in a rich diversity of views and sources of knowledge when evaluating geoengineering proposals. Amongst other concerns, they were particularly worried that pursuit of geoengineering without such protections would harm efforts to cut emissions.

Far from cutting the Gordian knot of climate politics, geoengineering potentially adds extra coils. Three problems in particular stand out.

Three problems

First, achieving any form of regulation of geoengineering at a global level is likely to be extremely difficult, requiring protections that go well beyond the idea of ‘winners’ compensating ‘losers’ (a principle that has yet to be delivered in negotiations over climate mitigation and adaptation). Given this, some states might develop and deploy geoengineering unilaterally – they may want to act urgently in the face of catastrophic climate, or they might want to protect their interests in keeping the fossil economy going. Such an intervention would ignore the views of most of the world’s population, including those most vulnerable to the impacts of geoengineering.

Second, unequal power relations on the international stage would mean that the most powerful and wealthy states (who we found were more likely to be influenced by the idealised world of scientific modelling) could pressure other states to accept inadequate global governance that would not duly reflect the global diversity of concerns and demands.

Thirdly, geoengineering may not even work as an insurance policy, or to ‘buy time’. Policies are not simply additive, but interact in complex ways. Promises of geoengineering would complicate vital climate negotiations about cutting emissions. Instead of buying time, it could harm international capacity to cooperate, just as we see in the Coronacrisis.

Instead of buying time, it could harm international capacity to cooperate, just as we see in the Coronacrisis.

Political understanding

In a world of conflict and contention based on fundamentally divergent world views, any effort to establish governance mechanisms – formal or informal, and whether intended to enable, or constrain, use of geoengineering – faces a rocky road. Geoengineering is not a short-cut around these political obstacles. Our experiences in Nairobi and elsewhere make it clear that while the general public, politicians and their advisors, diplomats and civil servants may all be poorly informed on geoengineering, coming to grips with it is not a matter merely of them learning from scientists and modellers, but also of generating new forms of knowledge informed by political understanding as much as by scientific understanding.

Our research suggests some key lessons. First, policy makers should avoid relying solely on idealised model scenarios for geoengineering, as these largely ignore the implications of political fragmentation and international difference. Second, governance for geoengineering cannot be an afterthought to pursuing research and deployment. And third, policy should aim to minimise any need for geoengineering by redoubling greenhouse gas mitigation efforts. In other words, if we are to learn from the current pandemic, we should invest in prevention, preparedness and resilience, not put our hopes in miracle cures.

If we are to learn from the current pandemic, we should invest in prevention, preparedness and resilience, not put our hopes in miracle cures.

As we have learned in climate policy more widely and with respect to other controversial technologies, democratic public engagement will be essential in efforts to address and govern climate interventions. One way forward would be for European policy makers to establish and fund a Centre for Responsible Climate Policy Innovation in collaboration with stakeholders and knowledge producers from the global South; to enable decision makers to draw on a genuinely wide range of voices and sources of knowledge in assessing geoengineering prospects and in developing governance. Good public engagement and participation enables better policy and more effective responses – whether to pandemics or to climate change.

The authors would like to acknowledge financial support from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation and the Independent Research Fund Denmark which made our research possible.

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