Reflecting on the “Berlin Declaration” – Andy Parker (with Oliver Morton and George Collins)


Thursday, Jul. 16, 2015

First time here?  Read our "what is climate engineering" page.

The Climate Engineering Conference 2014 (CEC14) was the largest geoengineering meeting to date, bringing over 350 people together in Berlin in August 2014. The most prominent controversy at CEC14 was the introduction of a document – the “Berlin Declaration” –that those attending could choose to support. The document, drafted by representatives of the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, suggested some steps forward for governing solar geoengineering research. The story of the response to this document and its eventual withdrawal should hold interest for anyone concerned with the governance of emerging technologies or openness in science policy. Reactions to the statement spoke volumes about how geoengineering is developing, and about the players, the stakes, and perhaps what Freud described as the “narcissism of small differences”.

I was not involved with planning or drafting the statement, but found myself closely involved with efforts to manage its review and discussion in Berlin. Therefore this blog post was written to try to provide a canonical history of the episode, and to draw some lessons from it. The reader need not take on faith anything that’s written here. The major sessions at CEC14 were filmed and made available online. All of the key moments in the Declaration’s brief but turbulent life, from its introduction in a plenary session to its drawn-out valediction at a town hall meeting, can be viewed via the links in the text below.

The Berlin Declaration

CEC14 was conceived to promote transdisciplinary discussion of CDR and SRM, and wasn’t designed to shape and agree a group statement. It was a surprise to many of the participants, then, when on the first day of the conference it was announced that the team behind the Oxford Principles had brought a draft statement on research governance. The authors hoped that participants would refine the Berlin Declaration over the four days of the conference, then perhaps sign their names to it at the end of the week.

The statement (which can be read here) addressed the governance of SRM experimentation conducted outside the laboratory. It called for outdoors research not to be approved until a transparent review process had been established. This would mandate prior disclosure of research plans and independent evaluation of all existing evidence, plans and results, and would actively seek public participation. The process would give experiments a ‘social licence to operate’, the statement claimed.

The surprise introduction of a group statement wasn’t well received by the CEC14 participants, and before the break-time coffee had been poured there were already mutinous whispers. Many took exception at the opaque process for revising the statement. No collective discussion was planned, and the only way to provide input was to email edits to one of the statement’s drafters, who would try to create a line of best fit between all the comments. Those who disagreed with the whole exercise were asked not to participate.

Some people were uncomfortable with the content of the statement itself, concerned, on the one hand, that it might prevent important geoengineering research or, on the other hand, that it might provide carte blanche for outdoors experimentation. Many worried about how those not attending the conference, especially those in the media, might (mis)understand the statement’s purpose. From “geoengineers reject regulation” to “geoengineers write their own rules”, a wide range of interpretations seemed possible.

The surprise introduction of a group statement wasn’t well received by the CEC14 participants, and before the break-time coffee had been poured there were already mutinous whispers.

In light of the widespread concerns, and the risk that the statement story might take on a life of its own, Oliver Morton,[note]Oliver Morton (editor at The Economist) was a member of the CEC14 advisory panel and, as writer with a longstanding interest in the climate engineering, was chairing a number of sessions [/note] George Collins[note]George Collins is a public interest lawyer and was a member of the CEC14 steering committee[/note] and I brokered a way forward with the conference organisers and the team that had drafted the statement. As “friends of the conference”, rather than as representatives of the organisers, we arranged and facilitated a “town-hall” style meeting at which the declaration (and the idea of a declaration) could be discussed, and participant concerns could be publicly aired. The organisers allowed us space in the schedule a few days into the five-day conference.

On the day of the town hall meeting Clive Hamilton (Charles Sturt University) introduced another, alternative statement, focusing on longer-term governance challenges and on institutions, rather than on near-term actions.

The town hall meeting

The meeting, which was as well attended as any non-plenary at CEC14, was opened by Steve Rayner (Oxford University). As one of the authors of the Declaration and the person who had introduced it on the first day of the conference, he explained the statement’s background, motivations and goals before the floor was opened for discussion.

A number of speakers addressed the content of the statement. Some were concerned that it wasn’t clear enough about which activities it covered, and that it could inadvertently end up regulating innocuous activities. Alan Robock (Rutgers University) hoped that it would not prevent indoors experimentation (such as research conducted in a laboratory), while Tom Ackerman (University of Washington) wondered whether, without extra work on definitions, the statement could place extra burdens on outdoor climate change experiments simply because they looked like SRM research. Andrew Lockley (independent researcher) worried that the Declaration could end up over-regulating small experiments that posed no risk of physical harm. Duncan McLaren (Lancaster University) disagreed. He argued that due to the complex social context of all experiments, it would be important not to partition off small experiments in a way that would allow them to avoid important governance arrangements.

Content aside, many participants were dissatisfied with the process by which the statement had been introduced, and was to be shaped and signed

Hugh Hunt (Cambridge University) questioned the Declaration’s negative tone, reflecting on the importance of encouraging young scientists and engineers to get involved in this new area of research. For Clive Hamilton, the document was an “insiders’ charter” that sought a licence to operate for the community that wrote it.

Content aside, many participants were dissatisfied with the process by which the statement had been introduced, and was to be shaped and signed. Some questioned whether CEC14 had an appropriate mix of participants to seek to influence SRM policy. Pablo Suarez (Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre) asked the conference participants to think harder about designing processes that are representative of the seven billion people on the planet, while Hugh Hunt noted the poor representation of the people who would be most affected by governance of small scale scientific experiments: the experimental scientists and engineers themselves. Eduardo Viola (Universidade de Brasília) countered that few people know about climate engineering and that CEC14 was sufficiently representative of those with expertise in the topic, and the different attitudes within the field.

Thilo Wiertz (IASS) summarised many people’s concerns about the process for shaping the statement, and its wider implications. He worried that the authors were co-opting the diversity and high profile of CEC14 – a conference designed to promote “critical global discussions” – and that they had provided no way to engage with the drafting process beyond submitting comments. He argued that open discussion would be necessary to secure sufficient support.

Jane Long (retired Earth scientist) and Rafe Pomerance (former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Development) shared some of Mr Wiertz’s concerns about process. Dr Long questioned whether the motives behind the declaration were being made sufficiently clear. Mr Pomerance argued that the conference was not set up to produce a policy statement, and that it could end up having a divisive legacy if pursued.

Clive Hamilton agreed that some participants felt co-opted, and that if the Declaration was introduced at the conference, shaped at the conference, and signed at the conference, unavoidably it would be seen as a product of the conference. He wondered how people who did not agree to the whole exercise could express their opposition.

Steve Rayner, representing the group that drafted the statement, responded that it was very much an ad hoc process that wasn’t meant to co-opt people, which was why it wasn’t proposed as a formal meeting resolution. Eduardo Viola pointed out that the statement had prompted useful discussion, and that was something to be grateful for.

Citing a range of potential risks, Dr. Hamilton alternative statement called for the establishment of a multilaterally agreed international body to oversee SRM research. Dr. Rayner pointed out that there was no direct conflict between Dr. Hamilton’s suggestion and the Berlin Declaration, and that looking to the development of new international institutions in the medium term didn’t obviate the need for governance arrangements to guide research in the short term.

As the meeting drew to a close a straw poll sought to gauge the attitudes of the participants. A majority opposed a statement of any kind, but many expressed interest in continuing the process of discussing the possible statements via other means.

Some lessons and implications

Following the meeting, the Berlin Declaration and Clive Hamilton’s statement went unsigned and the geoengineering research community was left to reflect on what could be learned from the episode.

It wasn’t clear whether disagreements over the statements’ contents were a result of Freud’s “narcissism of small differences”, or whether they showed that minutiae really will matter for the governance of such a controversial technology. Certainly some of the discord probably reflected the tendency for people to focus on the 10% of things they don’t agree on rather than the 90% of things that they do – a tendency honed to a high degree by many academics.

For instance, it would probably be hard to find a CEC14 participant who didn’t agree that there should be standards for transparency in experimentation, and some degree of public engagement in the development of SRM. Similarly, it is probably not controversial to say that an international process will be necessary in the medium term if outdoors research approaches a scale where it might have transboundary impacts. The two statements that were introduced at the conference showed that emphasis and prioritisation can matter greatly when formulating geoengineering policy, but as Steve Rayner pointed out, they were in no way mutually exclusive. Focusing on the longer term design of institutions does not reduce the need to design governance arrangements for research projects in the near term.

One of the clearest conclusions from the town hall meeting was that the process by which governance proposals are drafted, shaped and finalized is of great importance. Some of the loudest complaints about the Berlin Declaration concerned the way it was introduced and the lack of opportunities for reshaping it or dissociating oneself from it. The Declaration centred on the need for SRM research to gain a “social licence to operate” through participation and transparency of action and intent. Ironically the limited opportunities to participate in shaping the statement, and the lack of transparency over its process and purpose, were widespread criticisms amongst CEC14 participants. Perhaps vindicating its central point, the Declaration was denied a social license to operate by the conference.

The footage shows a diverse community that is thoughtful, conflicted and combative, and anything but a unified ‘geoclique.

The conference organizers and statement drafters had incorrectly judged how the Berlin Declaration would be received. It was a mistake to propose a process that had no mechanism for public debate or opposition, and a single statement that would inevitably be tied to the conference was open to misinterpretation in the media. However, there was good support for a follow-up process to discuss and shape the statements, showing that the organisers and drafters had correctly judged the desire for a focused discussion on practical steps for governance. Eduardo Viola was right when he said that the introduction of the Declaration prompted useful discussions. By providing space for our town-hall meeting, while allowing it to be held outside their aegis, the organizers helped ensure these useful conversations.

Perhaps the clearest message was about the geoengineering research community itself. The town-hall meeting saw interventions from experts in international relations, anthropology, geography, ethics, engineering, humanitarian aid, climate modelling and environmental policy. Discussion of the Berlin Declaration, from its initial introduction in plenary, to its final rejection in the town hall meeting, was all captured on camera and posted online. The footage shows a diverse community that is thoughtful, conflicted and combative, and anything but a unified geoclique. Even though the Berlin Declaration didn’t make it out of CEC14, it was encouraging that its deliberation took place in public view, and was typical of the critical discussions that have characterised geoengineering development to date.


Andy ParkerAndy Parker is a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, where his research focuses on the governance of solar geoengineering. He was also a member of the CEC14 steering committee. His work on the Berlin Declaration at CEC14 was undertaken independently of either of these roles, and the opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of the IASS.