September 15, 2010

CRS Reports on Geoengineering

Continuing its streak of natural security work this summer, on August 16th the Congressional Research Service issued a report titled “Geoengineering: Governance and Technology Policy(pdf). It highlights the exact disconnect that we’ve been concerned about with geoengineering:

…very few studies have been published that document the cost, environmental effects, sociopolitical impacts, and legal implications of geoengineering. If geoengineering technologies were to be deployed, they are expected to have the potential to cause significant transboundary effects.

Overall, this is a very thorough and well-constructed report, and you should all give it a full read. To start, it gives security types the distinct reason that we should be forward-thinking about this problem: “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 we can’t get out ahead of this potential security policy problem without beginning to discuss it more frequently. Notably, the CRS authors highlight a major problem that we find applies across the range of resource and earthy-type concerns: very poor communications. It therefore recommends special attention to this:

Public Engagement. The consequences of geoengineering—including both benefits and risks discussed above—could affect people and communities across the world. Public attitudes toward geoengineering, and public engagement in the formation, development, and execution of proposed governance, could have a critical bearing on the future of the technologies. Perceptions of risks, levels of trust, transparency of actions, provisions for liabilities and compensation, and economies of investment could play a significant role in the political feasibility of geoengineering. Public acceptance may require a wider dialogue between scientists, policymakers, and the public.

I hate to be pessimistic, but good luck with that. I honestly think the chances are desperately low that a meaningful dialogue among the policy and science communities and the public is possible. That would require major adjustments in how the media covers science, among many other tall hurdles. This begs an important question: should governments be moving toward types of activities that the public can’t even begin to understand the ramifications of? Does this remind anyone else of the early history of nukes?

Policy options, according to the report, include doing nothing and setting thresholds for minimum activity levels requiring oversight. Importantly, it also suggests that different technologies and different stages in geoengineering innovation should require different levels and types of oversight.

Very important for readers of this blog will be the section on international coordination, which makes this crucial point:

Some fear that, given these obstacles, the only “norm” that countries would be willing to agree to at this early stage in the geoengineering science is a moratorium on research and deployment activities. These individuals suggest that those countries who lack the capacity and political incentive to geoengineer may believe there is little to gain from permitting other countries to experiment.

Customary international law may still preclude moves toward geoengineering in practice by countries under existing frameworks. Notably, it cites passages in UNCLOS (which, btw, why haven’t we ratified??) that geoengineering involving the oceans could defy. I will not repeat this entire here, but this section is a must read for climate policy folks focused on foreign relations.

So to put it mildly, this report is very meaty and very well done. You should give it a read, and consider this the beginning of a long conversation we have with you all about geoengineering.