Whose Voice Matters in Climate Geoengineering?

When I got seriously interested in climate engineering, about 2011, there was little consideration of the diversity of effects it might have on different groups and their interests. Today it has become almost commonplace to acknowledge the importance of hearing voices from a range of countries, thanks in no small measure to the pioneering efforts of the SRMGI. The importance of hearing from publics rather than merely experts is also increasingly embedded in the discourse, although rich deliberation – revealing not only how thoughtful publics can be, but how the different circumstances of deliberation can shape outcomes – has been largely limited to one or two countries in the WEIRD world (White, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic).

So it should be a no-brainer to acknowledge the need to hear the voices of potentially affected groups from around the world: subsistence farmers in Bangladesh; fisherfolk in the Maldives; Arctic Inuit hunters; shanty-town dwellers in sub-Saharan Africa; elderly people in the mid-West … all these and many more could be affected differently by forms of climate geoengineering, especially if it is accompanied by continued political resistance to accelerated mitigation in nations like the USA.

But such suggestions are in important ways naïve: they presume that voice will lead to impact, that policies and practices are influenced rationally by participation. This is not altogether untrue, more incomplete. Here I want to briefly outline two ways in which it is incomplete, and thus offer some additional answers to the question of whose voice matters, based on my Ph.D.research at Lancaster, and our new project on mitigation deterrence.

First I want to highlight that before even considering voice, we need recognition. If existing societies fail to recognize a group as having legitimate standing as our moral equals, the issue of adequate voice is unlikely to even be considered. And in some cases the groups to whom we (‘we’ being a shorthand here for those with standing in global society) fail to recognize, are groups who cannot shout for themselves – non-human species, perhaps most obviously, but also future generations. Yet such groups clearly merit inclusion and representation in debates over climate geoengineering. In this light it should also be clear that adequate recognition and voice will not be delivered merely by extending standard forms of procedural justice, such as human rights, to include such groups.

This is not just a practical point, about their capacities to exercise such rights, but a political and philosophical one too. Drawing new groups into our moral community misses the point of true recognition, which is to empower such groups, through contestation and debate, to reconfigure the political regime and the social imaginary that sustains it.  How we can do this is neither obvious, nor simple, but I’d emphasize the importance of creating opportunities for debate and contestation in a diverse range of spaces and times in the consideration of (research on) climate engineering. In participation theory, scholars sometimes talk of invited and invented forms of participation. We clearly need to be open to new and diverse invented forms of participation and representation.

Second I want to steer our attention to those whose voice arguably matters too much (or more strictly, is given too much weight).  One fundamental reason for lack of recognition and voice for those most vulnerable to climate change or climate engineering is the dominance of particular privileged groups and interests in contemporary social imaginaries and the associated (neo)liberal political regime. This is not to claim that in the climate geoengineering space, powerful interests actively conspire to shape discourses and exclude others (although such behaviors are far from unusual). Nor is it to deny that currently powerful voices could (theoretically) advocate on behalf of the unheard. It is to suggest that the emergent effects of the combination of consumer behavior, financial and industrial interests, and the exercise of privilege interact to shape the ways in which new technologies emerge, and these in turn help reproduce relations of domination and exclusion, and legitimate the deployment of technological promises as a means to avoid economic and political transformations.

Thus climate engineering technologies – despite the repeated assertions of scientists involved – are likely to deter the sort of accelerated and politically transformative mitigation that those whose voices go unheard really need. So in research and development, we need to consider how to constrain and muffle voices that are currently over-privileged – not just those lobbying in naked self-interest, but also those whose scientific authority is unfortunately and unintentionally, embedded in the nexus of neo-liberal political and economic interests that are pushing the world towards devastating climate change.


Duncan McLaren is a Research Fellow at Lancaster Environment Centre. His Ph.D. research focused on the justice implications of geoengineering. He consults and advises on a range of sustainable development, energy, and climate change issues. Amongst other roles, he served on the UK Research Councils’ stage-gate panel for the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project review and is a member of the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Potential (IAGP) project advisory group.  Duncan’s blog can be found here.



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.

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