Advancing Interdisciplinary Discussions of Climate Engineering – Guest Post – Rachael Shwom, Rutgers University


Wednesday, Jun. 04, 2014


Too often we first assess climate solutions on the basis of technical capacity to reduce or avoid warming and the costs to do it and choose our preferred solution – leaving ethical implications, governance, and public support as afterthoughts to be ‘dealt with’ and worked around in attempts to implement the solution.


While interdisciplinarity is a common rallying cry to develop solutions for major pressing problems like climate change – it is often difficult to achieve.  Though social scientists have productively engaged and published on this issue (as evident by the Washington Geoengineering Consortium’s existence), their contribution to the policy discourse and public discussions can often be marginalized.  In reviewing major comprehensive government reports on climate engineering it was all too often that I would search “ethics” or “public attitudes” and find only a single page or paragraph of hundreds of pages dedicated to these issues.

In the fall of 2011, the Dissertations Initiative for the Advancement of Climate Change Research ( – known as DISCCRS, funded by NSF and NASA) brought together 32 symposium scholars from a wide range of disciplines, who had recently completed a dissertation dealing with some issue relevant to climate science.  After a discussion of geoengineering one day, a number of us took a walk and continued the discussion.  Five of these scholars (Daniela Cusack, Jonn Axsen, Lauren Hartzell-Nichols, Sam White, and Katherine Mackey) would go on to become my co-authors on a recently published paper that provides a framework for an interdisciplinary assessment of climate engineering strategies (Cusack et al., 2014).

The paper develops six criteria to help us assess a range of climate engineering options (forest management, soil management, geological burial of CO2, solar radiation management, and ocean fertilization) against the baseline option of mitigation.  The six criteria are: 1) technical potential 2) cost-effectiveness 3) ecological risk 4) ethical concerns 5) institutional capacity and 6) public acceptance.  We then identify measures for each of these criteria and apply them to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the options.

It’s not often that ethical concerns and governance challenges are quantified by measures in this manner.

One unique aspect of this paper is that it’s not often that ethical concerns and governance challenges are quantified by measures in this manner.  It certainly took some stretching of disciplinary practices and conversation on the part of the social scientists on our team.  However, we found that it was the best way to enable inclusion of these dimensions in our analysis rather than them being separate qualitative decisions on equal footing with the technical and economic analysis.  Too often we first assess climate solutions on the basis of technical capacity to reduce  or avoid warming and the costs to do it and choose our preferred solution – leaving ethical implications, governance, and public support as afterthoughts to be ‘dealt with’ and worked around in attempts to implement the solution.  In part, this is because we often assume that a rational actor approach with fairly narrowly defined costs and benefits is the model being used for societal decision-making.  But this is also in part, because the technical capacity and economic costs are more easily quantified (though sometimes no more certain) than the more social and political dimensions. This framework begins to address this issue by moving ethics, governance and public acceptance up front in the first cut assessment of climate engineering options.  This is not to say that potential solutions that present ethical or governance challenges should be abandoned, but that accounting for this early on provides an opportunity to consider all options and provide a more complete initial accounting of their potential for society.

A second unique part of this paper is that in assessing each option’s difficulty to govern, it works backwards from the characteristics of the technology itself.  So for example, the climate engineering option’s visibility or ability to be measured will make the option either more or less difficult to monitor and verify.   Or that the more certain we are about the harms and benefits of the technology, the easier it will be to govern.

Utilizing this framework, we find that mitigation scores better than all climate engineering options.  Amongst climate engineering options, the most positive ratings go to forest and soil management for carbon storage – more than other strategies such as biochar and geological carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).  Not surprisingly, low-cost, high-impact options including ocean fertilization and SRM present more serious drawbacks in terms of ecological risk, institutional capacity, and ethical concerns.

While the press releases around the paper have emphasized the conclusion that climate engineering offers no easy solution and the analysis favors mitigation (i.e. “Cutting Carbon Emissions Our Best Option for Slowing Global Warming Study Finds“), I do not see this paper as the end of the conversation or providing an answer.  In fact, our analysis is ill-equipped to answer the question of what should be done for a couple of reasons:

First, our criteria and their measures were developed on a mix of what the most apparent dimensions of climate engineering options were through a general survey of the literature and what measures were available.  Engagement with the decision-makers and stakeholders about the options and what is important to them could identify additional criteria or measures that would be useful to them.

Second, in our analysis, the six criteria were all valued equally with each ranking being calculated on a five point scale and represented as such.  We chose to give each criteria equal footing as we felt each criteria was important.  However, these criteria represent various dimensions of things in our society that will be impacted by pursuing each option and different stakeholders will care or value most about different dimensions.  Some stakeholders may be very concerned about the ecological risks an option poses, while other stakeholders may be very concerned about the costs to the general economy, while others may be very concerned about the equity issues.  In societal decision-making, these criteria would be weighted differentially to reflect importance of the various criteria to stakeholders.  As Dietz (2013:42) writes “Social scientific expertise can be useful in describing the value positions that exist around an issue and how prevalent they are… But scientific expertise does not have any special privilege in determining what values should be favored and what values should be harmed when a decision is made.”

Matthew Nisbet recently proposed “New Model for Climate Advocacy” that urges climate advocates to put all technologies and options on the table for consideration in an effort to gain broad public and political support (“A New Model for Climate Advocacy“).  Our framework can provide a useful tool for concisely laying out a range of options and starting a dialogue between scientists and stakeholders about the general dimensions of a range of climate and the identification of further questions of interests.



Daniela F Cusack, Jonn Axsen, Rachael Shwom, Lauren Hartzell-Nichols, Sam White, and Katherine RM Mackey 2014. An interdisciplinary assessment of climate engineering strategies. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 280–287.

Dietz, T. (2013).  “Epistomology, Ontology, and the Practice of Structural Human Ecology” pp. 31-52 in Structural Human Ecology: New Essays in Risk, Energy, and Sustainability. Editors Thomas Dietz and Andrew Jorgensen. Washington State University Press: Pullman, WA.


ShwomRachael Shwom is an assistant professor in the Human Ecology department who specializes in climate and society. She earned her Ph.D. in Sociology with a specialization in Environmental Science and Policy at Michigan State University in 2008. Her dissertation research focused on how different governmental, business, and environmental organizations sought to influence U.S. policies on appliance energy efficiency over the past three decades. She is interested in energy efficiency policy because efficiency improvements are often identified as an important and politically feasible step for reducing the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. She has also researched formation of public opinions on climate change, social science’s role in enabling decision-makers to act on climate change under uncertainty, and media’s coverage of climate change.

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The Washington Geoengineering Consortium 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 geoengineering.