October 05, 2011

Revisiting the Geoengineering Debate

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

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.