Governance for a ban on geoengineering

[Originally posted by Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative.]

by Lili Fuhr

All geoengineering approaches are by definition large-scale, intentional, and high-risk. Some have well-known negative impacts, threatening the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and undermining fundamental human rights (for example Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage). Others have great uncertainties when it comes to their potential impacts, that will never be fully known before actual deployment (mostly Solar Radiation Management).

There is a very important principle in international and national environmental law when it comes to dealing with uncertainties and risks – the precautionary principle. Based on this principle, the outdoor testing and deployment of SRM technologies, because of their potential to weaken human rights, democracy, and international peace, should be banned outright. This ban should be overseen by a robust and accountable multilateral global governance mechanism.

Other technologies that require great scrutiny are Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) projects that threaten indigenous lands, food security, and water availability. Such large-scale technological schemes must be assessed diligently before setting up proper regulations, to ensure that climate-change solutions do not adversely affect sustainable development or human rights. Any intentional large-scale deployment of transboundary nature (and with potential transboundary risks and harms) needs to be assessed by an agreed UN multilateral mechanism, taking into account the rights and interests of all potentially impacted communities and future generations. Most CDR schemes currently proposed would very likely fail such a rigorous assessment.

A ban requires governance

So why should I be interested in a debate on governance of a set of technologies that I would like to see banned? The answer is clear: a ban requires governance to ensure it is being implemented and enforced. And furthermore: governance of geoengineering is not just about the rules, procedures and institutions controlling research and potential deployment, but it is also about the process and discourse leading up to it. Unfortunately, current debates about climate engineering are undemocratic and dominated by technocratic worldviews, natural science and engineering perspectives, and vested interests in the fossil-fuel industries. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities must be given a prominent voice, so that all risks can be fully considered before any geoengineering technology is tested or implemented.

The good news is that a debate of governance of geoengineering does not take place in a legal or political vacuum. There are a number of important decisions to build upon. In 2010, 193 governments – parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – agreed to a de facto international moratorium on all climate-related geoengineering. More thematically focused, the London Convention/London Protocol (LP) to prevent marine pollution adopted a decision in 2013 to prohibit marine geoengineering (except for legitimate scientific research). The decision (adopted but waiting to enter into force) applies to the technologies that are included in an annex, which for now only lists ocean fertilization, as other techniques have not been thoroughly considered by the LP yet.

Beyond climate change

But geoengineering is about much more than climate change. Many geoengineering techniques have latent military purposes and their deployment could violate the UN Environmental Modification Treaty (ENMOD), which prohibits the hostile use of environmental modification. The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) has been in force since 1978 and has been ratified by 77 states. It prohibits the use of environmental modification and commits parties “not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party” (Article I). Article II defines environmental modification techniques: “any technique for changing – through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.” This definition encompasses many geoengineering technologies currently under active research and development.

Today, with powerful advocates generating so much pressure to bring geoengineering technologies out of the lab, soft bans with little enforcement mechanisms like the CBD decision are no longer sufficient. The world urgently needs an honest debate on the research, deployment, and governance of these technologies. The CBD and the London Protocol are essential starting points for these governance discussions, but these are certainly not enough.

Using the precautionary principle

In our civil society briefing on the Governance of Geoengineering “Riding the Geostorm” – that the Heinrich Böll Foundation published jointly with ETC Group – we highlight some key criteria for a legitimate discussion on geoengineering governance. In our view it should be based on the precautionary principle and not be confined to climate-related issues, as the consequences are more far-reaching than the climate, including weaponization, international equity, intergenerational justice, impacts on other ecosystems, such as biodiversity and oceans, impact on local and national economies dependent on those, indigenous and peasant rights.

Any debate on geoengineering, in our view, needs to be entwined with and informed by a rigorous discussion on ecologically sustainable and socially just alternatives to confront climate change and its causes, that shows that geoengineering is not a physical necessity or technical inevitability but a question of political choices.

Multilateral, participatory discussions 

Discussions on the governance of geoengineering need to be multilateral and participatory, transparent and accountable. They need to allow for the full participation of civil society, social movements and indigenous peoples. All discussions must be free from corporate influence, including through philanthro-capitalists, so that private interests cannot use their power to determine favourable outcomes or to promote schemes that serve their interests. This also means that initiatives like the C2G2 need to have obligatory, public and non-ambiguous conflict of interest policies in place, that prevent researchers with commercial interests in geoengineering to act as “independent” expertise.

An agreed global multilateral governance mechanism must strictly precede any kind of outdoor experimentation or deployment. And a ban on geoengineering testing and deployment is a governance option that I would certainly like to keep on the table.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a long-standing partner of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, received the Nobel Peace Prize this year “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”. Maybe this shows that despite a rather negative outlook on the future of multilateralism today, there’s an appetite to take bold and clear action when it comes to enclosing high-risk technologies.

Lily Fuhr is Department Head, Ecology & Sustainable Development, Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Riding the geostorm: Is it possible to govern geoengineering?

The prospect of controlling global temperatures raises serious questions of power and justice: Who gets to control the Earth’s thermostat and adjust the climate for their own interests? Who will make the decision to deploy if such drastic measures are considered technically feasible, and whose interests will be left out? This briefing from civil society on Geoengineering Governance was was produced by ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

New briefing: Why are Solar Radiation Management Experiments a Bad Idea?

by ETC Group.

A new briefing from ETC Group outlines the ethical, political and environmental arguments against solar radiation management (SRM), and explains why even SRM experiments are a bad idea. The backgrounder was released in late March 2017 after Harvard University announced they are planning open-air SRM experiments  in Arizona in 2018. Read the briefing and related materials at:

ETC Group also issued a news release and supporting materials explaining how the new US administration could “inflate geoengineers’ balloon” and create favourable circumstances for geoengineering experiments now and in the future.

If mankind is forced to take drastic action to stop global violence or warming, things are gonna get ugly

by John Knefel (Inverse)

Erratic weather. Draughts. Hurricanes. ISIS.

It seems like one of these things doesn’t belong. And while it’s true that the persistence of terrorist groups in the Middle East is a phenomenon separate from global warming, two new reports and basic logic argue that the U.S. Government needs to start looking at climate change as inextricably linked to U.S. and global security.

Taken together, the reports sound an alarm that is often ignored when politicians in the U.S. talk about their government’s environmental responsibilities. Republicans, for their part, dismiss human-made climate change while often trumpeting the importance of military preparedness. When Democrats talk about global warming, they prefer a narrative that couples economics with sea levels — a green economy will create jobs while slowing the rise of oceans. Both parties tend to ignore the ways in which climate change has led to conflict and the ways in which continued climate change will escalate existing conflicts. And few institutions — political, governmental, civilian, scientific, academic, etc. — have truly grappled with the potential ramifications of what could happen if mankind found itself forced to take drastic measures to stop global conflict and warming at one time.

Syria stands out as a modern example of how a complex matrix of factors, including a historic drought, can create political instability. Does President Bashar al-Assad have impressive popularity ratings in a world without global warming? Probably not, but the civil war in Syria is at least partially about basic resources and the lack thereof has compounded the refugee crisis.

Experts both inside and outside government are arguing that conflicts like the one in Syria, where a corrupt government is strained by extreme weather and volatile food and energy markets — could become more common. And we know conflicts rarely stop at borders or even the water’s edge. Will the coming decade see a vicious cycle emerge as humanitarian disasters become hot conflicts leading to further displacement? The smart money and the cynical money are in the same place.

The first report is from the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, and looks specifically at resource scarcity. The authors of Food Security and Climate Change: New Frontiers in International Security conclude that the international community must significantly change the way it responds to food shortages and climate-driven migration. Failure to adapt to the emerging crises could worsen suffering in already hard-hit areas – sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, among other places – and outpace “the capacity of developed countries and international aid organizations to respond.”

The CAP report details a hypothetical food shortage scenario that the authors and leading policymakers and experts from around the world gamed out last fall. Set in the decade from 2020-2030, participants were tasked with handling a model in which “pressure on the global food system was mounting.”

“The food crisis scenario felt all too realistic,” the authors write. “It was similar to the challenges the world faced in the past decade, particularly in 2011: Staple prices dramatically increased after a series of weather events around the world reduced harvests in a number of key food-producing countries.” They go on to state that many of the participants were unversed in the constraints and requirements of their peers – farmers didn’t understand policymakers, who didn’t understand security experts. The result was an outcome where natural allies were working at cross purposes because of a lack of familiarity with one another’s jobs.

Crucially, this is a problem that goes both ways, sometimes in a feedback loop. “Food insecurity and violence can contribute to instability and violence, just as surely as instability and violence can lead to food insecurity.” As global temperatures continue to rise to levels that even shock climate scientists, institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank, the authors write, need to adapt to the new international crisis. For now, the UN and international law doesn’t recognize climate-related reasons for claiming refugee status.

The other report, Climate Change and US National Security, from The Atlantic Council, argues that U.S. government officials should adopt the phrase “climate security” to convey the overlapping nature of the threats. “Climate security has become a useful concept in a five-decades-old field tying environmental change to national and global security,” the authors write. “The question going forward is whether climate security will remain restricted to discussions within academia, civil society, and a few dedicated places within the U.S. government, or if it will acquire a more pivotal role in the formulation of U.S. national security strategy.”

The Atlantic Council report lays out the two approaches a country can take to combating climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation strategies attempt to lessen the problem, “basically, switching from a high-carbon to a low- carbon economy, and negotiating global agreements to accomplish the same.” Adaptation deals are made with responding to the consequences of a warmer planet, “to increase American society’s resilience in the face of that threat.

Unfortunately, the authors conclude, mitigation is largely relegated to only a few federal agencies with relatively little power, while the rest of the government focuses on adaptation – to the extent the U.S. focuses on climate change at all.

The Atlantic Council report concludes that unless the political context around mitigation changes — essentially Republicans have to begin to acknowledge the existence of human-made global warming — the U.S. government will at best be on a defensive footing, hoping that adaptation can hold off the most severe consequence of rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. If that happens and climate change becomes more and more catastrophic, they write, it’s possible “that some entity or individual — the U.S. government, another state, a billionaire, an entrepreneur — will attempt to geoengineer the planet long before the zero-carbon economy arrives.” They define “geoengineering” as “a scheme either to reduce the amount of sunlight (thus, heat) reaching the Earth’s surface, or to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it in the Earth’s crust.”

The promise of geoengineering, as a cheap fix to an insurmountable problem, would become “irresistible, but the biggest risk is that the consequences could be both extreme and negative, leading the world down an unknown and dangerous path that might prove even worse than the effects of climate change itself.”

It’s hard to see how to feel good about a future in which we’re forced to fundamentally alter the planet to save it from burning and drowning – but warning about that nightmare scenario might be what it takes to kick the world’s leaders into high gear.

Can the CIA weaponise the weather?

A leading climate-change scientist has warned that the US secret service’s interest in geoengineering technology may not be benign. But it’s not the first time a government has tried to control weather patterns
by Patrick Barkham (Guardian)
This means war? An anticyclonic supercell thunderstorm. Photograph: Jason Persoff Stormdoctor/Getty Images/Cultura RFUsing the weather as a weapon to subjugate the globe sounds like the modus operandi of a James Bond villain, but a senior climate scientist has expressed concern over the US intelligence services’ apparent interest in geoengineering.

Geoengineering seeks to combat climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or by increasing the reflectivity of the earth – with clouds or even space dust – to reduce the sun’s warmth.

It is criticised by many environmental activists, including Naomi Klein, for suggesting that a simple techno-fix for global warming is just around the corner but geoengineering may have a more sinister side.

Alan Robock, who studied the potential impact of a nuclear winter in the 1980s, raised alarm over CIA’s part-funding of a National Academy of Sciences report on different approaches to combating climate change, and the fact that the CIA hasn’t explained its interest in geoengineering.

Weaponising the weather is nothing new. UK government documents showed that, 99 years ago, one of six trials at the experimental military station of Orford Ness in Suffolk sought to produce artificial clouds, which, it was hoped would bamboozle German flying machines during the first world war.

In recent years, the US military’s HAARP research programme has sown a blizzard of theories about how this secretive Alaskan facility has manipulated weather patterns with its investigation of the ionosphere. If HAARP really was so successful, it would probably not be closing this year.

The argument that if we grasped how to control the climate then evildoers would already be doing it doesn’t hold water with conspiratorial thought, however. Some believe the weather is already being shaped by “chemtrails” – aeroplane contrails deliberately laced with toxic chemicals – and mysterious weather warmongers are, for reasons unknown, making the eastern US unbearably chilly and California stricken by drought. Climate scientists dismiss such theories and evidence such as the long list of patents for climate-altering tools tends to demonstrate the boundless scope of the human imagination rather than the more limited reach of operational technology.

Robock is right to raise concerns over who will control any climate-shaping technologies that are proven to work but the omens from James Bond are good. Filming of the new Bond, Spectre, was disrupted earlier this month by strong winds in snowy Austria.

If there is a weather god, we aren’t it, yet.


Ex-researcher Says US Seeded Clouds over Cuba

LOS ANGELES (UPI) – The United States secretly used cloud seeding to dry up the Cuban sugar crop in 1969 and 1970, Lowell Ponte, a former Pentagon think tank researcher, said yesterday.

Ponte, a former specialist for the International Research and Technology Corp., said the CIA and the Pentagon seeded clouds in wind currents that carry rains to Cuba.

“Between 1966 and 1972 the CIA and later the Pentagon were using cloud seeding to make enemy trails muddy in Southeast Asia,” Ponte said in an interview for National Public Radio.

“But the seeding near Cuba was to cause less rain, not more. It was supposed to squeeze rain out of clouds before they reached the island. You might say we tried to embargo rain clouds.”

The experimental seeding was stepped up in 1970, Ponte said, because Cuban premier Fidel Castro staked the honor of his Communist government on the success of that year’s sugar crop.

“Castro set a harvest goal of 19 million tons of sugar,” Ponte said. “The CIA decided, after Castro’s promises, that failure would demoralize his people and make Cuban communism appear a failure.”

The cloud seeding brought erratic weather in Cuba and the sugar harvest fell short of its goal. Castro offered to resign, but remained in office, Ponte said.

“Weather science is too primitive to say that cloud seeding hurt Cuba’s harvest,” Ponte said, “but it could have. The point is that our government secretly attempted to tamper with weather in another nation, with which we were not at war, in an effort to cause economic and political harm.”

Ponte, auther of “The Cooling,” a book dealing with climatic change and manipulation of weather for political reasons, said the cloud seeding near Cuba was to provide information for a Pentagon project called “Nile Blue.”

The secret project, he said, has studied ways to melt polar icecaps, direct hurricanes and tornadoes as weapons and to “destabilize wearther in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba” to ruin harvests.

The Pentagon and CIA study was aimed at increasing America’s “food weapon,” the political use of food sales in much the same way as the Arab nations use oil, he said.

(Transcribed from the Palm Beach Post-Times.)