On Monday, The New York Times ran a story titled “Climate Tools Seek to Bend Nature’s Path.”
From the article-
“Once considered the stuff of wild-eyed fantasies, such ideas for countering climate change — known as geoengineering solutions, because they intentionally manipulate nature — are now being discussed seriously by scientists. … That does not mean that such measures, which are considered controversial across the political spectrum, are likely to be adopted anytime soon. But the effects of climate change may become so severe that geoengineering solutions could attract even more serious consideration. Some scientists say significant research should begin now.”
This month, Brent Crude is trading at $81.67 a barrel, and the Republican party has just taken control of the Senate on a platform of opposition and fear, portending further inaction on major issues. It’s not looking good for envisioning long-term futures of any sort. The problem is not just whether to think about geoengineering or not — the problem is that there are very few institutions or actors capable of imagining how we would manage climate change and energy production in, say, 2050.
The US military and intelligence community are charged with foreseeing future threats to the nation, and companies with expensive infrastructure outlays also are invested in creating a future: Shell’s new hashtag promotion, #makethefuture, resonates with their decades-long interest in scenario planning for unexpected futures. However, by and large, the planners, builders, investors, and policymakers who should be facilitating future infrastructure—both physical and institutional— seem paralyzed, caught in capital’s short horizons. Venture capital in Silicon Valley seeks companies that will grow and quickly be sold to larger companies; the “exit” is the new goal. Financialized capital in Wall Street seeks quick, complex derivative trades, often more profitable than long-term infrastructure financing. Washington is unable to create the conditions for long-term investments because 1) election cycles create short horizons, and 2) the economics of future energy policies are often linked to volatile oil prices. What this means is that apart from the sights of a few industries like energy and insurance, and the Pentagon, the long view fades from public imagination and discussion. What we end up with is a de facto governance of the future by oil price.
We need more than a coordinated research program which considers geoengineering— we need a coordinated, interdisciplinary research program on energy futures that goes beyond what is “possible” at a certain oil price. Viewed in the context of other possible futures, both SRM and CDR options probably look less attractive than doing the real work of rebuilding our energy infrastructure— but we won’t know unless we really look into it. Beyond research, we need to make changes in our political processes that would give us a chance to actually do long-term planning— maybe we should abolish midterm elections to diminish gridlock, as a recent NYT op-ed suggested.
Research is a good start, but it won’t do much without parallel processes: innovating policy for designing and financing new energy infrastructure, supporting cultural production that explores a range of futures (when was the last time you saw a future depicted in a movie or TV show that wasn’t dystopian?), and encouraging deliberative public engagement about the future we want.
Holly Jean Buck is a PhD student in Development Sociology at Cornell University, where she looks at human-environment interactions.
This week’s front page New York Times story on geoengineering highlights the need for inclusive and informed discussion on how to responsibly manage research into emerging geoengineering technologies.
With the impacts of rising temperatures already being felt, and recent IPCC reports drawing into sharper focus the range of impacts expected in the coming decades, solar radiation management (SRM) is attracting increasing attention as a potentially cheap, fast-acting, albeit temporary response to some of the dangers of climate change. It’s important to remember that SRM technologies bring risks of their own and do not address rising greenhouse gas emissions, which are the root cause of both climate change and ocean acidification.
The article correctly points out that current research and international discussions around SRM are still in their infancy. Much of the limited research on solar radiation management has taken place in the developed world – a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future. However, the ethical, political, and social implications of SRM research are necessarily global. Discussions about governance of research should be as well.
What is required now is a transparent, informed discussion of research governance that engages people from countries across the globe. The SRM Governance Initiative (SRMGI) was founded on the idea that early and sustained dialogue between diverse stakeholders, informed by the best scientific information, will increase the chances of SRM research being handled responsibly. To accomplish this, SRMGI has run outreach meetings on SRM research and its governance in the US, Singapore, India, China, Pakistan, Senegal, South Africa, and Ethiopia, engaging people from more than 40 countries and a range of backgrounds.
No one can predict how SRM research will develop or whether these strategies for managing the short-term implications of climate change will be helpful or harmful, but early cooperation and transnational, interdisciplinary dialogue on geoengineering research governance should help the global community make informed decisions.
Tal Lee Anderman is a Research Analyst in the Office of the Chief Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Alex Hanafi is EDF’s Senior Manager of Multilateral Climate Strategy.
EDF is a co-convener of SRMGI, along with the Royal Society and The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS)
My first personal encounter with the problem of brackets of legitimacy in science and technology came when I got a job in the late 1970s with the Energy Group in the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. OTA was surely one of the most intellectually honest organizations within the federal government, but there were still boundaries on what it was legitimate to believe, or at least to say out loud. For example, you had to believe that nuclear energy was a major and absolutely essential part of the energy future. Question that and you would loose all legitimacy as an energy analyst there.
Climate geoengineering seriously suffers from this problem. Twenty years ago, geoengineering could hardly be discussed in polite scientific company and raising the topic in environmental circles could destroy your legitimacy as an environmentalist. While this taboo has eased in recent years, it still inhibits conversation.
The fear that even discussing geoengineering could detract from the focus on mitigation was once understandable, but should no longer inhibit open conversation. Every serious study and paper on geoengineering has stressed that reducing GHG emissions is the fundamental solution and top priority for dealing with climate change. Conservative think tanks that once championed geoengineering as easier and cheaper than cutting emissions have now all aligned with the view that the human impact on climate is so small that we don’t even have to worry about it.
I advocate pushing open the brackets of legitimacy and fearlessly discussing questions like whether we need a coordinated international research program on SRM and whether there are CDR technologies we should deploy in the short term. We also need more open, balanced discussion about global warming itself, since that is the justification for even considering geoengineering. I find concerned liberals are loath to talk about how consistently wrong climate models have been or about the “pause” in global warming that has gone on for over fifteen years, while climate skeptics avoid discussion of things like ocean acidification and accelerated melting in Greenland and the Arctic.
Open discussion informed by moral argument and the best of our developing knowledge is the only responsible way to move forward.
Dr. Robert Olson is Senior Fellow, Institute for Alternative Futures. He was member of the Institute’s founding Board of Directors and served as Director of Research from 1990 to 2003, leading the Institute’s work in technology forecasting, technology assessment and energy and environmental futures.
It used to be taboo to talk about, or research climate engineering. Now it seems that, in certain circles at least, it is becoming taboo to suggest that we shouldn’t be talking about or researching climate engineering. One runs the risk of being labelled a climate sceptic who doesn’t believe in the seriousness of the climate change problem, or of being somehow ‘anti-science’ in general. To be clear: I am not a climate sceptic, but I do feel deeply uncomfortable with the suggestion that ever more research on geoengineering – in particular solar radiation management (SRM) – is required in order to prepare the world for an impending climatic emergency. Furthermore I do not think that questioning the desirability of a particular direction of research in this way makes me ‘anti-science’ (whatever that might mean).
Even if, for argument’s sake, there were to emerge a broad consensus that the impacts of SRM could be accurately predicted (which seems highly unlikely and endlessly contestable), the social and political impacts of such an intervention are essentially un-knowable, meaning that whatever level of physical scientific certainty or engineering know-how we might gain in this area, the whole enterprise will remain radically unpredictable and risky. Having said this, although we cannot predict the future, we can draw on disciplines like history, economics and political science, to consider the likelihood that a global SRM programme would be governable in any kind of desirable and democratic way: this likelihood appears vanishingly small. David Keith suggests in the New York Times that should it ever proceed, SRM ‘should be done slowly and carefully, so it could be halted if damaging weather patterns or other problems arose’. But this suggestion seems highly simplistic.
Given the well-recognised difficulty of attributing any given weather event to climate change, the recognition that any given ‘damaging weather pattern’ was unequivocally the result of the SRM intervention and significant enough to halt the intervention, would be far from the straightforward matter implied by Keith’s statement. Furthermore, history is replete with examples of so called socio-technical lock-in: technological developments which cause belatedly-discovered negative impacts which are nearly impossible to halt or reverse. For these reasons and many others I think we should really stop talking about SRM as though it were a sensible policy option, or that it would somehow become one if only we did a bit more research.
Dr. Rose Cairns is a Research Fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex. She is a member of the Sussex Energy Group, and affiliated with the STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability). Dr. Cairns is coordinator of the Nexus Network, an interdisciplinary initiative funded by the ESRC bringing together researchers, policy makers, business leaders and civil society to develop collaborative projects and improve decision making on food, energy, water and the environment.
With global GHG emissions and concentrations continuing to increase; with climate change intensifying changes in ecosystems, ice sheet deterioration, and sea level rise; and with fossil fuels providing more than 80% of the world’s energy, the likelihood seems low that cooperative actions will prevent increasingly disruptive climate change over the next several decades. While aggressive emissions cutbacks of short-lived warming agents could halve the warming projected to 2050 and determined efforts to promote adaptation and enhance resilience could help reduce impact costs and damages, many regions will suffer greatly over this period. As two examples:
(1) the Arctic is already showing serious disruption, including sea ice retreat, amplified warming, ice sheet loss, permafrost and clathrate thawing, and initiation of natural carbon feedback cycle. Over the next several decades, the Arctic as we know it will be lost as the detrimental consequences ripple around the world as a result of sea level rise altered weather patterns, and biodiversity loss;
(2) low to mid-latitude coastal regions are already facing a greater likelihood of very intense tropical cyclones that are drawing energy from significantly warmer ocean waters. As a result, storm surges, rains and flooding are worse and damage and death greater.
While it is worth continuing study of global climate engineering to control warming if the rising concentrations of GHGs cannot be halted over the next several decades, the potential for climate engineering approaches to moderate impacts in the particularly exposed regions being affected merits investigation. The approaches that might prove useful are not exotic, being based largely on imitating what Nature has done or society is doing now in an un-targeted manner. Those facing such severe impacts deserve to have the scientific, social science, and policy communities at least carefully evaluate the potential to moderate particularly severely impacted regions.