Should geoengineering be considered a global public good?


Monday, Oct. 28, 2019

Prakash Kashwan (University of Connecticut)

“Geoengineering to be regulated as a public good” – this is the first among the five key “Oxford Principles” for the governance of geoengineering.   However, ‘public goods’ means very different things to different audiences. Climate scientists, social scientists, economists, the general public, policymakers: all may carry quite different understandings of what it means to look at something as a public good.

In new research published in the journal Global Transitions, Robert Holahan and I argue that the technical definition of public goods, derived from economics, detracts from the central question of stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), that is, to account for and address the divergent and disproportional effects of SRM on some groups and some regions.

To clarify the technical definition, the ‘good’ in public good refers to an ‘economic good’ or a thing (as in goods and services), that has two main characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry. Non-excludability refers to the fact that once a public good is provided, it is difficult to exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits even though they may not have contributed to its provisioning. Non-rivalry refers to the fact that the consumption of a public good does not negatively impact other individuals’ ability to also benefit from a public good. For example, national defense is a public good, which once provided, is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous for all residents living within a country. Though, public goods need not be ‘good’, as in something associated with positive or desirable features. Going by the technical definition discussed above, air pollution is also a public good –  once provided it is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. To avoid the confusion between the technical and the normative connotation attached to ‘good’, many scholars use the word ‘public bad’ to refer to public goods that produce bad outcomes. However, technically speaking all public bads are essentially ‘public goods.’

The literature on public goods recognizes the confusion caused by the vocabulary of public goods. We make two new arguments, one related to the theory of public goods and a second one related to the importance of the use of the vocabulary of public goods within policy debates.

First, we argue about the importance of accounting for heterogeneous externalities, that is, multiple and divergent effects of a public good. The canonical example used in Economics textbooks is that of a lighthouse, which benefits all ships heading to a destination. However, even a lighthouse may also produce negative consequences, e.g., the glare produced by a lighthouse may interrupt sleep for local residents, or their night-time enjoyment of a popular beach. We argue that the theories of public goods do not account for these multiple and divergent effects. The concerns about divergent effects is a non-issue as long as the effects are relatively harmless, as in the case of the glare from a lighthouse disrupting the nighttime view, at least if a small number of people are affected. However, when the ‘side effects’ of a public good are heterogeneous and uncertain, with the potential of affecting hundreds of millions of people, as in the case of SAI, the technical definition of public good does not tell us anything about its net effects. This does not refute the technical status of SAI as a ‘public good’ but has significant implications for policy and governance debates.

Second, we focus on policy debates. When confronted with the kinds of issues set out above, the advocates of SAI argue that it is possible to minimize potential side effects by executing just the right amount of SAI at the most optimal set of locations in the stratosphere. That response evokes imagery of scientists in lab coats having their hands on the global thermostat, a role that most scientists reject outright. Leaving this aside, for now, even if one were to assume that the global community can find an enlightened group of scientists, who are motivated by egalitarian concerns, the enlightened scientists would need to surmount enormous scientific uncertainties related to the unknown and potentially unknowable effects of SAI on atmospheric dynamics. With present levels of understanding, the very best scientists could hope for is to produce climatic outcomes of certain specifications at a certain scale of aggregation with any reasonable degree of certainty. For example, they could perhaps make assurances that the average change in monsoons over the south and southeast Asia are likely to be only moderate. That still leaves out the possibility of significant variations within the region, even within the boundaries of a large country, such as China or India. Referring to SAI as a public good, though technically true, distracts us from the task of thinking about the implications of the potentially large sub-regional and subnational effects. Accounting for these heterogeneous effects has significant implications for governance of SAI research, which should then focus on regional modeling, economic and social effects, and the deeply political questions about how geoengineering science is translated into policy interventions.

At both international and national levels, the powerful and the wealthy often influence the policy process. It is especially salient when national governments, which are notorious for not being accountable to a majority of their citizens, are asked to represent the interest of populations that are divided along the dimensions of caste, class, gender, ethnicity, and subnational regions. Whether the groups affected adversely are heard in policy conversations or compensated in the event of adverse impacts depends on how responsive and effective the national government is to the interests of the non-powerful.

Social science research shows that political and economic power does not always manifest in the form of outright coercion or suppression against the powerless. Indeed, the exercise of power in this era is intertwined with the institutions of democracy and the discourses of deliberation and participation. The vocabulary of ‘public goods’ lends itself to similar discourses in the context of geoengineering debates, in which policymakers and members of the public confound its technical meaning with its normative implications. As such, this vocabulary, and the larger set of discourses being marshaled by the proponents of geoengineering, reinforces the power of the dominant actors, agencies, and institutions.

The question of accountability of powerful actors and institutions is as important as those of the science of regional modeling and socio-economic impacts. Thinking through these questions is indispensable to any discussion of the governance of SAI or other forms of geoengineering.


Prakash Kashwan

Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut

Contact: prakash.kashwan@uconn.ed

Prakash Kashwan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. His research and scholarship focuses on political economy of institutions, environmental policy and politics, global climate governance, and climate justice. Professor Kashwan is the author of Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2017) and articles in World Development, Ecological EconomicsRegional Environmental ChangeLand Use PolicyJournal of Environmental ManagementInternational Journal of the Commons, Journal of Theoretical Politics, and Global Environmental Politics. He has also contributed popular commentaries to the Washington Post and the Guardian, among others. Professor Kashwan teaches courses on the politics of the environment, environmental policy and institutions, and research methods.

Prakash is a member of the FCEA’s Academic Working Group on Climate Engineering Governance and co-authored the report, Governing Solar Radiation Management.