Building a Climate Engineering Clearinghouse

Climate engineering (CE) is an umbrella term for a set of mostly prospective technologies that might be developed and used to counteract some of the effects of climate change. The technologies under consideration could do much good. They also, though, present myriad risks. Because of these risks, CE experts and observers have long emphasized the need for transparency in research, experimentation, and deployment.

On July 18, 2017, the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened a meeting of experts in CE science and governance, transparency, and information visualization to discuss designing, implementing, and maintaining a CE clearinghouse.

A research registry, database, or clearinghouse is often cited as a necessary transparency mechanism in the governance of CE research. This workshop, building on a 2015 meeting on disclosure mechanisms for solar radiation management convened in Ottawa,[1] was designed to move such a clearinghouse from principle to practice.

Several key insights, and questions, from the day’s dialogue emerged:

There is consensus on the need for transparency, but there still is much disagreement over the scope and design of a disclosure mechanism.

There are scientific and societal benefits to establishing a disclosure mechanism early in the development of a controversial technology. The conversation around CE governance and science has always included a commitment to transparency. However, as revealed in the workshop, there is significant disagreement over the scope of activities that should be disclosed and the design of the disclosure mechanism. Of particular concern is the inclusion of meetings between CE researchers, laboratory experiments, and computer models. It was also acknowledged that most geoengineering transparency and governance discussions to date have been conceived and articulated from a predominantly Western context. There is still great uncertainty over the way that these challenges are viewed in, e.g., Chinese, Indian, or Russian contexts, and whether differentiated mechanisms might be required in response to these heterogeneous contexts.

While some contend that the CE research field is too young to need a formal clearinghouse, there is broad agreement that a clearinghouse could bridge gaps in understanding between CE researchers and the broader climate policy community.

            In addition to encouraging transparency as the CE field grows, establishing a clearinghouse now would advance the CE governance conversation and promote understanding of what role (if any) CE could play in the broader climate policy response. In addition, the lack of consensus on a single definition of what constitutes CE means that researchers who believe themselves to have a firm grasp of activities in their particular domain may not have complete knowledge of activities in other domains that might also be included in some definitions of CE.

There is work to be done to determine the most efficient and effective method to collect, curate, and maintain data for a clearinghouse.

Significant concern was raised about a time burden on scientists. The ideal process would be a balance between automated data collection, voluntary entry from researchers, funders, and journal editors, and active expert curation.

Next Steps:

            While the workshop highlighted several key unanswered questions, the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are committed to further exploring the development of a baseline clearinghouse, and documenting its development, through an iterative approach with diverse stakeholders. The purpose of developing a clearinghouse at this moment is to operationalize a commitment to transparency while the CE research field is still young and to provide accurate information about CE for policymakers.

Read the full meeting report. 

[1] See “Designing Procedural Mechanisms for the Governance of Solar Radiation Management Field Experiments”