Civil Society Meeting Report

On November 4, 2013, the Washington Geoengineering Consortium organized a meeting for civil society actors based in Washington DC.

The meeting brought together around 40 people from major environmental, development, and justice NGOs, to consider the challenges and opportunities presented by geoengineering technologies. There was much rich conversation throughout the day.

Here is a report summarizing and synthesizing the day’s events.

The meeting was the first in a series of consultative events that the WGC has planned.  If you want to stay informed about future meetings, please add your name to our mailing list, and see our events page.

Executive Summary

On November 4, 2013, the WGC hosted a closed-door meeting on geoengineering for Washington, DC-based civil society actors. More than 40 individuals registered to attend, from 30 different organizations.

The day was based around an opening panel discussion, followed by two breakout discussion sessions.

During the first breakout session, participants were invited to look at the potential benefits and risks for people and the climate of various geoengineering proposals, and began to consider the possible contours of civil society engagement. The second session focused more particularly on questions of ethics, justice, governance, and of framing.

The breakout sessions produced a set of fruitful and revealing conversations. Among the most interesting lines of conversation were the following:

Civil Society Reluctance to Engage with Geoengineering

Three main reasons were advanced by meeting participants for civil society’s relative reticence about discussing climate geoengineering as a climate policymaking option:

  • Geoengineering is a dangerous distraction — it redirects attention away from the main drivers of climate change and away from more important types of response.
  • Geoengineering is important but simply off the radar — there’s no funding for civil society engagement with the subject, as the science races ahead of public attention.
  • Geoengineering is being avoided for strategic reasons — it’s too complex a subject area, and civic society groups are wary about “normalizing the discussion.”

Risks and Benefits of Civil Society Engagement

Many argued that the present reluctance of civil society actors to engage with the geoengineering conversation must be overcome. If the world gets to the point of having to choose between climate disaster or geoengineering, politicians are almost certain, it was suggested, to choose geoengineering. This understanding of the political dynamics driving the world toward deployment of geoengineering technologies suggests a need for urgent and more far-reaching civil society attention.

Who Wins and Who Loses in a Geoengineered World?

A recurring theme was that the most vulnerable people and communities should be accorded paramount importance and voice when considering geoengineering. Some suggested that the poor, particularly in the developing world, are unlikely to receive benefits from geoengineering and will be forced to bear any associated costs. Others, though, argued that geoengineering efforts might be a boon for the poor, by helping, potentially, to ameliorate some of the most serious impacts of climate change that are projected to occur during this century and beyond, with likely disproportionate impacts on the global South. Indeed, some argued that rather than see the poor as being victimized by geoengineering efforts, it is in fact the most vulnerable who have the most to gain from geoengineering research and potential deployment.

What About Governance?

In the context of regulation of research, participants discussed whether formal regulation was required. There was a consensus that, at the minimum we need greater transparency, with tracking of private research by a pertinent body at either the domestic or international level.

How Should Civil Society Actors Frame Geoengineering?

Some suggested that the dominant framing for geoengineering now is as a “solution” to climate change. Few scientists would make such a claim, but the general public may still construe the promise of geoengineering as “this will make climate change go away and, so, we don’t have to change our behaviors.” A few suggested that, to shift the conversation in productive ways, geoengineering should be characterized publicly as a “terrible choice.” Geoengineering, in other words, can be viewed by civil society organizations as a strategic opening, as a way to bring home the horrors of climate change to policymakers and the public.

A Strategic Response

In an ideal world, some argued, geoengineering would be a strategic tool. It would be just one among many forms of society-wide response. There would be robust and honest conversations about the tradeoffs of pursuing particular options, taking account of the entire suite of benefits and costs associated with mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering activities. Yet history teaches that responses to social problems and the assessment of complex technologies seldom proceed in such a reasoned fashion. “Society,” one participant noted, “is lousy at strategy.”

Next Steps

The Civil Society Meeting on Geoengineering was a useful first step in broadening the array of Washington, DC based voices participating in the geoengineering conversation. The WGC plans to continue to advance its core mission of generating heightened levels of engagement with geoengineering’s social, political, and legal implications by offering further forums for civil society and public engagement, by growing the availability of educational materials on geoengineering, and by providing a hub for high-quality and policy-relevant legal and social scientific research.

The full report can be found here.

Audio of the opening panel discussion can be found below.  The discussion was open to the public and featured:

  • Joe Romm, Fellow at American Progress and is the Founding Editor of Climate Progress
  • Kate Sheppard, Senior Reporter and the Environment and Energy Editor at the Huffington Post
  • Wil Burns, Associate Director, Energy Policy & Climate program, Johns Hopkins University
  • Simon Nicholson, Assistant Professor of International Relations, School of International Service, American University