002: To Deploy or Not: Geo-engineering

During the last century, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have amplified significantly as a result of human activities since the industrial era and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years.[1] Article 2(a) of the Paris Agreement, a treaty which received a great deal of attention the world over as a pioneering agreement to combat global warming seeks to finally hold nations to maintaining the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C.[2] The aim of the 2 °C “magic number” [3] has been floating around for decades. However, the agreement was championed on the basis that all nations and countries were in agreement: action needed to be taken sooner rather than later – or at least when 55 countries covering 55% of global emissions acceded to it.[4]

Nevertheless, scientists and leading experts regard the Paris Agreement as “dangerously flawed” [5] and inadequate and call for attention to be focused on controversial and predominantly untested methods of climate engineering[6] – ‘geoengineering’. Geoengineering refers to the human manipulation of climate change by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere[7] (otherwise known as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) techniques) – techniques include ocean fertilization and reforestations.[8] Or, by using Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques which are interventions into the planetary climate system aimed at counterbalancing the excess heat generated by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases by reflecting some of the inbound solar radiation back into space[9] either by albedo modification, space-based shields or injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere.[10]

The issue of climate change, and therefore the responses to it, are not to be understood merely in their physical real world sense but also in the broader contexts of the society and the realpolitik.  Thus, as a regulatory response to climate change, geoengineering requires an interdisciplinary approach. The factors that determine its acceptability are as much social, legal and political, as they are scientific and technical.[11] This essay is concerned with the advantages and disadvantages associated with geoengineering as a regulatory response to climate change.

That geoengineering is regarded by the media as ‘a master response’ to the impending ‘climate emergency’ lends to the view that a climate change emergency is a sufficiently certain notion – it isn’t; at least not in the way we, non-scientists, think or understand. The idea of a climate emergency has been shifted between the realms of objectivity and subjectivity[12], between normative and positivist understandings of science[13] that ultimately it’s led to misunderstanding regarding the role of science and scientific enquiry in policy formation. Ultimately, our understanding of what the idea or issue of climate change is and, as a result, our understanding of responses to climate change have suffered.

The accustomed attitude is that the job of scientists is truth-seeker and fact-finder – to distinguish between what is real and what is not. However, this is not the objective of science and informed scientists know this. Science does not seek to produce logically undisputable proofs about the real world – it instead seeks to produce robust consensus based on a process of inquiry that allows for continued scrutiny, re-examination, and revision.[14] This misunderstanding has trickled down into social, economic and political arenas. The result of which means that science presents a problem and governments formulate policies around fixing that problem through enforcement – ‘the technocratic model’.[15] Policy that is created is deemed to work because they are based of truths.[16] However, science does not deal with absolute truth; at best it deals with approximations of truths.[17] So the regulatory responses or the policy initiatives are based on a fallibility and this is problematic because the implications of certain policy ideas and ‘technical fixes’ like geoengineering have wider implications – both negative and positive; individual and collective; intergenerational and intragenerational.

The notion of an environmentally driven emergency manifesting in a similar way to a pandemic is contested. Thus, the deployment of CDR and SRM has the potential to produce uncertain and unpredictable risks that models simply don’t have the remit to account for. Geoengineering technologies are so “embryonic”[18] that there is little knowledge yet about the nature of potentially unwanted outcomes and still less knowledge of probabilities. [19] Thus, it could be argued that geoengineering, which is an inherently political artefact[20], engenders a ‘technology control dilemma’. This is problematic because it is only after large-scale deployment may the consequences of geoengineering be understood. Rayner illustrates this point by referring to it as a ‘geoengineering paradox’[21]:

‘The technology… that could technically be used to shave a few degrees off a future peak in anthropogenic temperature rise is likely to be the most difficult to implement from a social and political standpoint, [whilst] technology that might be easiest to implement from a social perspective and has the potential to deliver a durable solution to the problem of atmospheric carbon concentrations is the most distant from being technically realized.’[22]

Furthermore, by the time a technology is widely deployed, it may be impossible to build desirable oversight and risk management provisions without major disruptions to established interests and the status quo.[23]

Moreover, geoengineering as a technical response to climate change highlights the shortcomings of our understanding of what science is and the role it plays in society. It fails to recognise that science no longer operates in the autonomous ‘Republic of science’[24] but within discrete paradigms[25] that are ultimately constrained by other social, political and economic dimensions such as culture, credibility, reputation and future funding prospects.[26] However, the advantage of this is that science must now seek to become much more heroic and pay much more attention to establishing and communicating what is unknown and what is uncertain.[27] It’s important to recognise that science, and therefore ideas like climate change, climate emergencies and responses to it, are capable of being subjected to bias. Every step of geoengineering, from proposal to deployment is open to influence and corruption from and may be co-opted by self-interested corporations, policy makers, governments and even terrorists. Thus, scientists must take much broader and more radical steps to recognise the inadequacies of normative understandings of science and assume a higher degree of responsibility with regards to the application of science in policy issues (‘post-normal science’).[28]

The advantages associated with geoengineering tend to be technique specific. For example, injecting sulphates into the stratosphere is affordable and feasible and presumed to work based on the fact that volcanoes cool the planet in this way.[29] Furthermore, recent studies have demonstrated that changes in management of cropland, such as the use of zero-tillage farming, can capture significant carbon fluxes in soils at low cost.[30] Reversibility is considered to be an important characteristic of any successful geoengineering technique and it’s clear that some techniques have the added advantage of being stopped at any time without further damage – such as ocean fertilization[31]; although the consequences of stopping some geoengineering techniques, like SRM, may bring rapid and disastrous changes.

There are of course auxiliary advantages associated with geoengineering – for example, in the case of agricultural sequestration, the benefits claimed include enhancement of soil quality, crop productivity and hydrological capacity.[32] However, the advantages mostly associated with geoengineering tend to concern costs, effectiveness and amenability to centralised implementation[33] and it is clear that CDR and SRM techniques vary when measured against these advantages.

Geoengineering is often referred to as “Plan B”[34]. However, the framing of geoengineering as a ‘master response’ doesn’t fully acknowledge or appreciate the benefits associated with ‘Plan A’: mitigation and adaptation, e.g. reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, “Plan B”, which seems to run parallel to, and not in succession of ‘Plan A’, instead labels ‘Plan A’ as unachievable, mostly impractical and décroissance – anti-growth. Consequently, a further disadvantage of geoengineering is that it presents ‘a moral hazard’.

A moral hazard is a socially inefficient increase in risk-taking by one party once another party absorbs some of the potential negative consequences of the first party’s actions, typically through an insurance-like agreement between the parties and typically without the latter party’s full knowledge.[35] With regards to geoengineering, there is a great fear that polluters, policymakers and society at large will have weaker incentives, increased inertia and a greater lethargy to reduce carbon emissions if they know that geoengineering methods can and likely will be used to offset such emissions.[36] Already there exists a powerful predilection for finding excuses not to cut greenhouse gas emissions that any apparent plausible method of getting a party off the hook is likely to be seized upon.[37]

Nevertheless, not everyone is in agreement that firstly, a moral hazard exists and secondly, that if it does indeed exist, that it is a bad thing. For example, Bunzl argues that the presence of a moral hazard is exaggerated and doesn’t see why the presence of a moral hazard should function as a deterrent to action any more than it does elsewhere.[38] Likewise, Powell et al comment that it is not clear why a weaker incentive to reduce emissions would be a bad thing, provided that any increase in emissions is indeed offset through geoengineering.[39] Hale argues that moral hazard arguments against climate engineering fail on their face due to a distinct lack of clarity and precision and that they fail not because they are wrong or incorrect but because they are far too complicated and multi-layered to do the work that they are assumed to do.[40]

Moreover, morality is subjective. This is problematic in and of itself. Quantitative evidence shows that moral hazard arguments about geoengineering may be differentially persuasive to different types of people depending on their levels of climate change scepticism, personal wealth and self-orientation.[41]

This above has attempted to identify the advantages and disadvantages associated with geoengineering. As illustrated above geoengineering is rife with disadvantages and its advantages are technology-specific. Geoengineering does present a strong economic, political, and psychological temptation to defer difficult and costly actions.[42] However, this notion of deference is significant when measured against more ethical concerns such as equity, justice and democracy.

Whilst COP21 successfully framed the climate issue as a ‘we’ issue, the deployment of geoengineering technologies will invariably reduce ‘we’ to ‘some’. Only some will be in a position to deploy, only some will be included in decisions of regulation and governance and only some will stand to benefit – benefits unlikely to be shared.

A number of questions concerning fairness and justice arise when considering deployment of geoengineering. Furthermore, are the concerns of future generations being considered when it is they who will be charged with continuing deployment when reversibility is not feasible and who might have to bear the brunt of unidentified consequences associated with the negative impacts of geoengineering? Under the principle of sustainable development there is a need to not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

What’s more, might unilateral geoengineering agreements infringe on territorial and normative Westphalian notions of sovereignty? Can the nation-state unit survive in a world of geoengineering? Or is geoengineering likely push against the nation-state?

Geoengineering is at odds with the precautionary principle[43] and the obligation to prevent harm.[44]. Geoengineering methods, such as SRM, will invariably necessitate autocratic, top-down governance.[45] Will the voices of developing countries and indigenous groups be heard? Geoengineering requires a holistic and inclusive approach but who gets to decide?

However tempting, the bottom line is this: geoengineering, whether characterised as a moral hazard, risk compensation, or political opportunism, is a serious concern because it is widely acknowledged to be an inferior, problematic, and at best temporary option for responding to climate risks.[46] Therefore, it dangerously distracts our attention away from the more rational, equitable and ethical ‘Plan A’: mitigation and adaptation. Geoengineering presupposes an implicit judgment that social change is not on the table so the only answer is to buy time for the costs of renewable energy technologies to fall far enough, or to prepare to deal with an inevitable climate emergency.[47] Is it worth the gamble either way? To deploy or not to deploy? – That is the question.


[1] UNEP, ‘Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers’, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) <http://www.slvwd.com/agendas/Full/2007/06-07-07/Item%2010b.pdf> accessed 3 February 2016.

[2] The Paris Agreement (FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1) art 2(a).

[3] Chris Mooney, ‘The Magic Number: Holding Warming under Two Degrees Celsius Is the Goal. But Is It Still Attainable?’ Washington Post (29 November 2015) <http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/11/29/carbon/> accessed 3 February 2016.

[4] [Note 2] art 21.

[5] Tom Bawden, ‘COP21: Paris Deal Far Too Weak to Prevent Devastating Climate Change, Academics Warn’ The Independent – Climate Change (8 January 2016) <http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/cop21-paris-deal-far-too-weak-to-prevent-devastating-climate-change-academics-warn-a6803096.html> accessed 3 February 2016.

[6] ibid.

[7] John Shepherd, ‘Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty’ (The Royal Society 2009) <https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2009/8693.pdf> accessed 3 February 2016. pp. 9.

[8] David W Keith and Hadi Dowlatabadi, ‘A Serious look at Geoengineering’ (1992) 73 Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 289, 290.

[9] Bronislaw Szersynski and Matthew Kearnes, ‘Why Solar Radiation Management Geoengineering and Democracy Won’t Mix’ (2013) 45 Environment and Planning 2809, 2810.

[10] [Note 6] 291.

[11] [Note 5] ix.

[12] See Sara Shipley Hiles and Amanda Hinnant, ‘Climate Change in the’ (2014) 36 Science Communication 428.

[13] Hammitt JK, ‘Positive versus Normative Justifications for Benefit-Cost Analysis: Implications for Interpretation and Policy’ (2013) 7 Rev Environ Econ Policy 199; Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (5th edn, Cambridge University Press 2009 74.

[14] Naomi Oreskes, ‘Science and Public Policy: What’s Proof Got to Do with It?’ (2004) 7 Environmental Science & Policy 369 <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901104000644> accessed 3 February 2016. pp. 370.

[15] Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (5th edn, Cambridge University Press 2009) 100.

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] Andy Stirling, ‘Science, Precaution and the Politics of Technological Risk’ (2008) 1128 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 95.

[19] ibid.

[20] Langdon Winner, ‘Do Artefacts Have Politics?’ (1980) 109 Daedalus 121.

[21] Steve Rayner, ‘The Geoengineering Paradox’ (2010) 7 The Geoengineering Quarterly <http://www.greenpeace.to/publications/The_Geoengineering_Quarterly-First_Edition-20_March_2010.pdf> accessed 03 February 2016. pp. 8.

[22] ibid

[23] Kelsi Bracmort, ‘Geoengineering, Governance and Technology Policy’ (Congressional Research Service, 2013) <https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41371.pdf> accessed 3 February 2016. pp.4.

[24] See Michael Polanyi, ‘The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory’ (1962) 1 Minerva 54.

[25] [Note 13] 78.

[26] [Note 12] 380.

[27] [Note 13] 79.

[28] ibid 78-79.

[29] [Note 6] 93.

[30] See Elizabeth L Malone, Carbon Sequestration in Soils: Science, Monitoring, and beyond: Proceedings of the St. Michaels Workshop, December 1998 (Norman Rosenberg and Cesar R Izaurralde eds, Battelle Press, US 1999).

[31] Phillip Williamson and others, ‘Ocean Fertilization for Geoengineering: A Review of Effectiveness, Environmental Impacts and Emerging Governance’ (2012) 90 Process Safety and Environmental Protection 475 <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095758201200119X> accessed 3 February 2016.

[32] David W Keith, ‘Geoengineering and Carbon Management: Is There a Meaningful Distinction?’ [2001] Nature 1 <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228539872_Geoengineering_and_Carbon_Management_Is_There_a_Meaningful_Distinction> accessed 3 February 2016. pp. 4.

[33] Zürn M and Schäfer S, ‘The Paradox of Climate Engineering’ [2013] Global Policy 1 https://www.wzb.eu/sites/default/files/u13/the_paradox_of_climate_engineering_global_policy.pdf date accessed: 03/02/2016. pp. 3.

[34] Chris Green and Steve Connor, ‘Climate Scientists: It’s Time for “Plan B”’ The Independent – Climate Change (2 January 2009) <http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/climate-scientists-its-time-for-plan-b-1221092.html> accessed 3 February 2016.

[35] Jesse Reynolds, ‘A Critical Examination of the Climate Engineering Moral Hazard and Risk Compensation Concern’ (A Critical Examination of the ECPR, 2014) <https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/f479bfc8-7d2b-46d9-a88f-2a6812724b55.pdf> accessed 3 February 2016. pp. 4.

[36] Russell Powell and Steve Clarke, ‘The Ethics of Geoengineering [Working Draft]’, James Martin Geoengineering Ethics Working Group <http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0013/21325/Ethics_of_Geoengineering_Working_Draft.pdf> accessed 02 March 2016. pp. 2.

[37] Clive Hamilton, ‘Ethical Anxieties about Geoengineering: Moral Hazard, Slippery Slope and Playing God’, Australian Academy of Science Canberra (2011) <http://clivehamilton.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ethical_anxieties_about_geoengineering.pdf> accessed 3 February 2016. pp. 7.

[38] Martin Bunzl, ‘Researching Geoengineering: Should Not or Could Not?’ (2009) 4 Environ. Res. Lett. 1, 2.

[39] [Note 32] 1.

[40] Ben Hale, ‘The World That Would Have Been: Moral Hazard Arguments against Geoengineering’ in Christopher J Preston (ed), Engineering the climate: The ethics of solar radiation management (1st edn, Lexington Books 2012) 115.

[41] Adam Corner and Nick Pidgeon, ‘Geoengineering, Climate Change Scepticism and the “Moral Hazard” Argument: An Experimental Study of UK Public Perception.’ (2014) 372 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 1 <http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/roypta/372/2031/20140063.full.pdf> accessed 3 February 2016. pp. 7.

[42]Albert Lin, ‘Does Geoengineering Present a Moral Hazard?’ [2012] Ecology Law Quarterly: UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 312 1, 39.

[43] Karen Scott, ‘International Law in the Anthropocene: Responding Toi the Geoengineering Challenge’ (2012) 34 Mich. J. Int’l L. 309, 341.

[44] ibid 309,333.

[45] [Note 7] 2812.

[46] [Note 38].

[47] [Note 33] 17.

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