The geoengineering debate is front and center in Washington again. Yesterday, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report recommending that the U.S. government be prepared to counter the effects of global climate change by researching and testing options for “climate remediation” – which is the report’s term of art in lieu of geoengineering; “to mean intentional actions taken to counter the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.” The report is based on the findings of an 18-member panel convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center in March 2010.
The debate comes as momentum for any political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through national legislation has stalled on Capitol Hill, and is likely to remain stalled through 2013 given the approaching presidential election season. According to The New York Times, several of the panel members that authored the report “hoped that the mere discussion of such drastic steps [that is, to engineer the climate] would jolt the public and policy makers into meaningful action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which they called the highest priority.”
“Managing risk is a central principle of effective climate policy,” the report states. “This task force strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e., enhancing the resilience of human-made and natural systems to climate changes). Most climate remediation concepts proposed to date involve some combination of risks, financial costs, physical limitations, or a combination of the three that make the concepts inappropriate to pursue except as complementary or emergency measures—for example, if the climate system reaches a ‘tipping point’ and swift remedial action is required. The United States needs to be able to judge whether particular climate remediation techniques could offer a meaningful response to the risks of climate change.”
Beyond the technical, physical and financial hurdles, the foreign policy challenges of engineering the climate are quite striking and need to be considered carefully. Indeed, the international implications of geoengineering/climate mitigation are pretty significant given that the actions taken by one state could have potentially long-term, detrimental effects on others. “Because unilateral actions by one or more individual countries could have far-reaching consequences, early efforts to engage other major nations and to launch an international dialogue on relevant policy issues are essential,” the Bipartisan Policy Center report states. “The United States must play a pivotal role in this process.”
In October 2010, the House Committee on Science and Technology released a report, Engineering the Climate: Research Needs and Strategies for International Coordination, that emphasized the important role that the State Department will have to play in any conversation about geoengineering/climate mitigation moving forward:
While basic research activities within U.S. federal agencies may not require participation from the State Department, the potential impacts of climate engineering are necessarily international in scale. Those strategies that would result in trans-boundary impacts, such as changes in monsoon patterns and sunlight availability, would necessitate international coordination and governance at an early stage. If the United States were to formalize research activities on climate engineering, complementary international discussions on regulatory frameworks would be required.
James Rodger Fleming, author of Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, alluded to some of the foreign policy dilemmas the United States is likely to confront in coordinating international action around climate engineering when he spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center last October. In particular, Fleming wondered how the United States would manage geoengineering in the international community? Do existing treaties, such as the 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile use of Environmental Modification Techniques, provide the necessary framework to negotiate geoengineering/climate mitigation, or is a new treaty needed? These are the kinds of question that are likely to challenge U.S. diplomats moving forward. The stakes are high. Going back to Fleming’s book – and I highly recommend reading it – I can’t help but heed his warning: “as soon as you start managing the sky, you start fighting about it.”
But for me, it’s Fleming’s message about the need to learn from history that must be injected into the public policy debate. Indeed, his book looks back at what he describes as the tragicomic history the United States has with geoengineering – and yes, there’s a history there. As I wrote here on the blog last year, “Fleming noted, advancements in science go from promise to hype too quickly, and before we begin to discuss experimenting with the global climate, we need to look to historical precedent so we don’t repeat past mistakes.” That’s an important statement that’s worth being reminded of. As the debate in Washington moves forward, how much can history inform our next few footsteps as we walk the fine line of climate engineering? If it can, it should.