Forum Discussion- Rhode Island H 7578: The Climate Geoengineering Act of 2016

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In 2015 and 2016, a bill was introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives to regulate climate geoengineering — an attempt that caught many by surprise, as legislating a technology with global impacts on the state level is a novel approach.

In this forum, Wil Burns, Co-Executive Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, who helped re-draft the bill in 2016, science and technology policy experts, and political scientists discuss this move: its drawbacks, merits, and lessons learned. – Holly Jean Buck

Q&A with Wil Burns, Ph.D.

  1. What backstory do people need to know about this bill?

This bill was originally introduced into the Rhode Island House of Representatives by Representatives Karen MacBeth (D) and Justin Price (R) in 2015. It appears that the original impetus for the bill was Representative Price’s embrace of the so-called “chemtrail conspiracy,” the purported plot by the government and/or corporations to use aircraft to spray chemical or biological agents into the atmosphere for various purposes. The bill failed to clear out of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee in 2015. It was “held for further study” in its 2016 incarnation in the same committee.

  1. How were you involved? 

In early 2016, Representative MacBeth approached me to review the bill, and we agreed that I would engage in a re-draft. I emphasized that I did not believe in chemtrails, and that the bill should focus on responsible oversight of potential research into climate geoengineering that might transpire in Rhode Island. Because the sponsors’ primary concern appeared to be the risks posed by solar radiation management, we also agreed that this would be the cynosure of the bill’s re-drafted language. As is true with most legislation, compromises had to be made. There is language in the bill that I consider a bit overblown in terms of its characterization of climate geoengineering research, but this is the nature of politics. In the end, I felt that the bill provided some salutary mechanisms to both ensure scientific and public oversight.

  1. What did you hope to achieve?

I had two purposes: Firstly, I was hoping to help draft legislation that would serve as a model for discussion of what national legislation or international governance might look like in terms of regulating geoengineering research and potential deployment. This obviously won’t be the ultimate province of sub-national actors; however, state legislation often provides a model for national legislation and regulations. Some of the elements included in the bill, such as thresholds for regulatory interventions in terms of research, and environmental impact assessment, are elements that should be included in national or international governance approaches. The contours of these elements is certainly subject to further debate, but it was my hope that this bill would provide a foundation for said debates.

Secondly, I thought that a “live” bill would help to stimulate discussion among both policymakers and the public about climate geoengineering in a way that hasn’t happened to date, with geoengineering largely residing in the theoretical realm for most people. I subscribe to the theory of “anticipatory governance,” meaning that it’s critical to engage stakeholders early in the process of the discussion of potentially momentous decisions.

  1. In your words, what would you say the takeaway from all this is?

Ultimately, the primary people testifying about the bill were those who equate climate geoengineering with “chemtrails.” As a consequence, I think the bill wasn’t really given serious consideration by the Rhode Island House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. It is anticipated that the bill will be re-introduced in the future. Hopefully, members of the geoengineering community will weigh into the process.

Q & A with science and technology policy experts

  1. What do you find interesting or important about this piece of legislation?

Reynolds 75 roundJesse Reynolds:  The most interesting aspect of Rhode Island H7578 is the mere fact that it has been introduced as a state bill. The large-scale climate geoengineering activities that the bill targets would have effects well beyond state and even national borders. Yet for various reasons, national and international legal instruments to manage climate engineering – especially solar climate geoengineering – are absent and unlikely to manifest in the near term.  It could thus, from a certain perspective, be understandable for states to take action.

Burns 75 roundLizzie Burns:
  National and international governance structures are crucial for the research and possible deployment of solar geoengineering. I therefore find it interesting that one of the first US policy responses to solar geoengineering arose on the state level. That said, however, state legislation can often act as an important, useful model for federal legislation and regulation, as Professor Wil Burns noted. As such, this bill may prove to be a helpful starting point when policymakers seek to craft much needed national legislation. Moreover, this bill may help spark much needed public discussions around solar geoengineering.

Stigoe 75 RoundJack Stilgoe:
The legislation seems well-meaning and on the whole accurate in its description of claims made about geoengineering. The idea of enacting principles that are broadly in line with the Oxford principles for the governance of geoengineering seems sensible. However, there are divergences from the Oxford principles that are important, and some lessons that can be learned from cases like SPICE that I think would help make this legislation more practicable.

  1. What do you think is missing from the bill?  Or, what might you have done differently?

Stigoe 75 Round Jack StilgoeIn introducing SRM (especially stratospheric) geoengineering, there needs to be something about how potent such ideas would be if realised. They would be world-changing, analogous to nuclear weapons in their strategic importance and uncertainties. The point is made that these ideas are at an early stage and uncertain. In the text, they are presented as ‘options’. They are not options. They do not exist. They are ideas, proposals, schemes. They are, to all intents and purposes, imaginary, and very, very little research is being done on what it would take to make them work.

With that in mind, I think the legislation needs to be clearer about the object of governance. Is it trying to govern deployment? It seems to be working with a ‘rogue geoengineer’ type scenario. I simply don’t believe that is likely. The issue for me is about research. I would like the legislation to contribute to the opening up of new models of science. I would like it to encourage scientists to be more open (as per the Oxford Principles) rather than preventing imaginary rogues from ‘doing’ geoengineering in a way that poses direct risks, which I think is more of an issue with spurious ocean iron fertilization etc.

Reynolds 75 roundJesse Reynolds:
  The bill has some significant shortcomings. The definition of “climate geoengineering” (“large-scale manipulation of the global environment intended to manipulate the climate with the primary intention of reducing undesirable climatic change caused by human beings”), which is at the heart of the bill, is unclear. Does this include carbon dioxide removal methods? If so, does the definition include all of them, or only the more environmentally intrusive ones? Furthermore, the definition refers to “large-scale,” which itself remains undefined, and twice to intention, which can be very difficult to pin down, as seen in the Haida Gwaii incident.

Burns 75 roundLizzie Burns:
  In outlining the definition of “climate geonengineering,” the bill refers to both “solar radiation management” and “carbon dioxide removal” methods (part 6.i and part 6.ii). While I understand that several entities often group these two methods together when providing a broad definition of “geoengineering,” I believe it is important to separate the two methods when shaping policy. The two approaches have incredibly different characteristics that require different policy responses.

Secondly, in outlining the findings of fact, there are several ‘facts’ listed that are not supported by the latest peer-reviewed research (or at least, not deemed as a ‘fact’ as much as a topic of ‘uncertainty’ that needs more research). Moreover, in the findings of fact, I believe it is important to distinguish between the risks of solar geoengineering research versus deployment, as each will require different governance structures.

Reynolds 75 roundJesse Reynolds:
  Its findings of fact are problematic. Climate geoengineering has both potential benefits and risks, yet the bill cites only the latter. And some of those that it does list – such as increased air pollution – are strange. These are not serious concerns but are likely remnants of the bill’s anti-chemtrail origins, cited by Wil.

  1. What do you think we learned from this attempt?  

Stigoe 75 RoundJack Stilgoe:
  If the legislation is about deployment rather than research (and I’m one of the people who things that line is blurred in many cases), then some of the principles it outlines are excellent, such as the need for ongoing monitoring and the desirability of public meetings. These would be important anticipatory principles for doing this, but my concern is that, in the next ten years, nothing anybody sensible is proposing would fall into the remit of the legislation. With that in mind, I don’t like the drawing of thresholds. The suggested threshold is from Keith and Parson, yes? My concern is that it has been drawn in order to get society off scientists’ backs, which misses the point and fails to learn the social lessons from SPICE.

Reynolds 75 roundJesse Reynolds:
  Solar climate geoengineering, and some forms of carbon dioxide removal, should not be regulated at the state level. At the very least, such efforts could result in a confusing patchwork of state laws. Worse, some resulting legislation could be simply bad, containing imprecise language and leading to unintended legal consequences. Many state legislators work only part time with small staff support, and are thus unable to properly get up to speed with such a complex topic. These phenomena were evident with human embryonic stem cell research, which – as a result of a federal stalemate – was subject to extensive state-level prohibitions, regulations, promotion, and funding during the previous decade.

Another risk is that collaborating with believers in chemtrails could result in blurring of that conspiracy with actual solar climate geoengineering research, and could unintentionally legitimize that conspiracy theory.  Although I appreciate the roles of anticipatory governance and the states as policy laboratories, cited by Wil, my sense is that in this case the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

Burns 75 roundLizzie Burns:
  There are several takeaways we can learn from this attempt, particularly as it relates to public engagement. According to Wil, the main people who testified about the bill were those who believed in the “chemtrails” conspiracy theory; and that, as a result, the Rhode Island House Environment and Natural Resources Committee did not consider the bill too seriously. Solar geoengineering has large social and economic implications, so the public must be engaged in the debate of how its research and possible deployment is governed. The discussion should not be confined to a select few, especially not those who believe in the “chemtrails” conspiracy. Future bills would benefit immensely from much broader public engagement, and include those from the research community, non-profit environmental community, business community, and others in the general public.


Buck-post featured image

Holly Jean Buck is Faculty Fellow at FCEA, and a PhD candidate in Development Sociology at Cornell University, where she is also a Research Fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.  Her research interests include agro-ecology and climate-smart agriculture, energy landscapes, land use change, new media, and science and technology studies. With regards to climate engineering, she has written on humanitarian and development approaches to geoengineering, gender considerations, and media representations of geoengineering. As a geographer and creative writer, she approaches social science analysis with both spatial and narrative lenses: meaning that space and environmental geography matters, but so do storylines, imagery, and performance.  She holds a MSc in Human Ecology from Lund University in Sweden.

Burns_125Wil Burns, PhD is the Co-Executive Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment and a Scholar in Residence at the School of International Service, at American University.  He is a Senior Fellow in the International Law Research Program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).


Lizzie_Burns 125Lizzie Burns is a Fellow at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where she is working with David Keith and Gernot Wagner on developing a research program on solar geoengineering. Having graduated from Williams College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and from the Harvard Kennedy School with a Master in Public Policy, Lizzie focuses mostly closely on the policy issues surrounding geoengineering. Prior to Harvard, Lizzie worked for the non-profit advocacy organization Opportunity Nation. She also staffed a U.S. Senate campaign and served as an intern at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Reynolds 125Jesse Reynolds is a scholar of international environmental policy, and a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of European and International Public Law at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. He researches and teaches how society can develop rules, norms, and institutions to manage environmental problems, particularly those involving new technologies.


Jack Stilgoe 125Jack Stilgoe is senior lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at University College London. He is the author of Experiment Earth: Responsible Innovation in Geoengineering (Routledge).



The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on climate engineering.

  • Wil Burns

    Thank you to everyone for your comments. I agree almost entirely with everyone’s analysis. Most notably, I agree that there was too much of an emphasis on the threat of so-called “rogue” actors, and incorporation of some of the protocols from the SPICE experience would have been helpful. Unfortunately, the bill’s drafters were only willing to go so far in terms of how they characterized geoengineering actors, and how they wished to regulate research. As I said, I think the bill serves more as a substrate for stimulating further discussion of how to draft legislation at the national or international level rather than a piece of “model legislation.”

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