U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has referred to climate change as an “engineering problem.” As a conversation on NPR’s “To the Point”, featuring FCEA Co-Executive Director Simon Nicholson, revealed, proposed climate engineering solutions to climate change may bear their own host of problems.
David Keith, Professor of physics and policy at Harvard University, is researching the potential for sulfate aerosols to cool the planet and to act as a “powerful supplement” to cutting carbon emissions. Keith emphasized that “reducing the rate of [climate] change could have profound benefits, and that is true even if you do [geoengineering] only for one century,” especially for the world’s vulnerable populations.
Challenging Keith, Ray Pierrehumbert, professor of physics at the University of Oxford, argued that geoengineering would lead the world into delaying emissions reductions, locking the world into a vicious cycle of greater levels of warming and therefore greater levels of geoengineering. Even research itself is dangerous, Pierrehumbert asserted, claiming “once you unleash a technology, it is going to almost inevitably be deployed.”
In addition to controversy over material risks, the guests questioned who geoengineering would empower. Keith, claiming that geoengineering is inexpensive, argued that this technology would diffuse power and is most likely to be deployed by the most climate-vulnerable nations. Simon Nicholson and Jack Stilgoe, a senior lecturer in the department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London, instead argued that geoengineering could concentrate power. Nicholson, noting that “up until now, climate change has been seen as a common problem,” raised the concern of conflict over attribution, in which countries that experience severe weather events may blame countries deploying geoengineering technologies.
A point of agreement was the need for governance of climate engineering. While the guests varied on the feasibility of global governance of long-term deployment, there was a consensus that new governance structures are needed to manage research and to continue to debate questions of ethics, political consequences, and material risk.
Carolyn Turkaly is Program Manager for the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment. She oversees daily operations in the FCEA office and with its programs and projects. Ms. Turkaly is an M.A. Candidate with the Global Environmental Politics Program in the School of International Service at American University.