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: Climate change, smoke and mirrors

For the past decade, a small but growing group of governments and scientists, the majority from the most powerful and most climate-polluting countries in the world, has been pushing for political consideration of geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale technological manipulation of the climate.

Geoengineering is inherently high-risk and its negative effects will likely be unequally distributed. Because of this, geoengineering has often been presented as a “Plan B” to confront the climate crisis. But after the Paris Agreement, which set the ambitious goal of keeping the temperature to well below 2°C and possibly even 1.5°C, the discourse has changed. Now, geoengineering is increasingly being advanced as an “essential” means to reach this goal, through a mix of risky technologies that would take carbon out of the atmosphere to create so-called “negative emissions” or take control of the global thermostat to directly lower the climate’s temperature.

A new briefing paper by ETC Group and Heinrich Böll Foundation in advance of the UNFCCC intersessional meetings in Bonn, May 2017, gives an overview of what geoengineering is and why it is dangerous, as well as up-to-date information on proposed geoengineering technologies and governance.

A crucial read for anyone engaged in the fight against climate change.
Read the briefing paper here.

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: http://www.etcgroup.org/content/why-srm-experiments-are-bad-idea

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.

A reliance on negative emissions technologies is locking in carbon addiction

The Paris Agreement on climate change and the carbon-reduction plans of many governments (including the UK) are unwittingly reliant on unproven technologies to suck hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

The journal Science has published a Perspective which reveals the scale and widespread reliance on ‘negative emissions technologies’, which remain at best experimental. Nevertheless the models being used to advise governments on what action to take are dominated by such highly speculative technologies – with many assuming their mass roll-out beginning within the decade.

“The beguiling appeal of relying on future negative emission technologies (NETs) is that they delay the need for stringent and politically challenging polices today – they pass the buck for reducing carbon on to future generations” said Kevin Anderson, co-author of the paper and Professor at the Universities of Manchester and Uppsala. “But if these Dr. Strangelove technologies fail to deliver at the planetary scale envisaged, our own children will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.”

The scale of carbon removal emerging from the models underpinning governments’ thinking on climate change is breathtaking. By the middle of the century many of the models assume as much removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by negative emission technologies as is absorbed naturally today by all of the world’s oceans and plants combined.

Despite the modelling community’s reliance on negative emission technologies, there are no proven means by which we can remove carbon dioxide at such unprecedented scales” says Dr Glen Peters, a Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO) and co-author of the paper.

“Yet almost all of the scenarios with a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C and considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) assume that the large scale roll out of negative emission technologies is technically and economically viable.”

Dr Peters points to how “Carbon dioxide removal is an extremely attractive technology for fossil fuel companies, as they can continue production whilst shifting the burden of mitigation on to future generations.”

It is not well understood by many decision makers, NGOs and even academics working on climate change, that the climate models informing governments are so dependent on such a massive deployment of speculative and unproven technologies.

“The inclusion of the still more ambitious 1.5°C goal in Paris, relies on a belief in even greater levels of carbon removal. Without negative emissions, holding to a 1.5°C rise demands that the global economy fully decarbonises within a decade,” says Professor Anderson.

Negative emission technologies are not an insurance policy. They are a high risk gamble with tomorrow’s generations, particularly those living in poor and climatically vulnerable communities, set to pay the price if our high stakes bet fails to deliver as promised.

Professor Kevin Anderson

The trouble with negative emissions

By Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters (Science)

Reliance on negative-emission concepts locks in humankind’s carbon addiction

In December 2015, member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

The Paris Agreement requires that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission sources and sinks are balanced by the second half of this century. Because some nonzero sources are unavoidable, this leads to the abstract concept of “negative emissions”, the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) from the atmosphere through technical means. The Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) informing policy-makers assume the large-scale use of negative-emission technologies. If we rely on these and they are not deployed or are unsuccessful at removing CO2 from the atmosphere at the levels assumed, society will be locked into a high-temperature pathway.

CARBON BUDGETS

To understand the implications of the Paris Agreement for mitigation policy, we must translate its qualitative temperature limits into quantitative carbon budgets, specifying how much CO2 can be emitted across the remainder of the century to keep warming below a given temperature level (1). Uncertainties in the climate system mean that such budgets are specified with quantitative likelihoods.

Borrowing from the taxonomy of likelihoods used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most generous interpretation of the Paris Agreement’s requirement to keep the temperature rise well below 2°C is, at least, a likely (66 to 100%) chance of not exceeding 2°C.

The IPCC has assessed 900 mitigation scenarios from about 30 IAMs (2). Of these, 76 scenarios from five IAMs had sufficient data to estimate the carbon budget for a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C. These scenarios give a carbon budget of between 600 and 1200 billion metric tons (Gt) CO 2 (10 to 90% range) for the period from 2016 until the peak in temperature [updated from (1)]. Increasing the likelihood of keeping temperatures below 2°C (or shifting the ceiling to 1.5°C) will reduce still further the available carbon budget (3). The budget is also subject to a reduction each year, currently around 40 Gt CO 2 , due to continued fossil fuel, industry, and land-use change emissions.

It is important to keep in mind that despite their intuitive appeal, the complexity of carbon budgets make it impossible to assign a specific budget to a given temperature rise.

anderson-graphFROM BUDGETS TO EMISSION PATHWAYS

Because the carbon budgets represent cumulative emissions, different emission pathways can be consistent with a given budget. Using the 76 scenarios consistent with a likely chance of not exceeding 2°C (see the figure), two key features are immediately striking. First, the scenarios assume that the large-scale rollout of negative-emission technologies is technically, economically, and socially viable (2, 4). In many scenarios, the level of negative emissions is comparable in size with the remaining carbon budget (see the figure) and is sufficient to bring global emissions to at least net zero in the second half of the century.

Second, there is a large and growing deviation between actual emission trends and emission scenarios. The sum of the national emission pledges submitted to the Paris negotiations (COP21) lead to an increase in emissions, at least until 2030. They thus broaden the division between pathways consistent with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement (5) and require either much more severe near-term mitigation (6) or additional future negative emissions.

It is not well understood by policy-makers, or indeed many academics, that IAMs assume such a massive deployment of negative-emission technologies. Yet when it comes to the more stringent Paris obligations, studies suggest that it is impossible to reach 1.5°C with a 50% chance without significant negative emissions (3). Even for 2°C, very few scenarios have explored mitigation without negative emissions (2).

Negative emissions are also prevalent in scenarios for higher stabilization targets (7). Given such a pervasive and pivotal role of negative emissions in mitigation scenarios, their almost complete absence from climate policy discussions is disturbing and needs to be addressed urgently.

NEGATIVE-EMISSION TECHNOLOGIES

Negative-emission technologies exist at various levels of development (8–11). Afforestation and reforestation, although not strictly technologies, are already claimed by countries as mitigation measures. Bioenergy, combined with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), is the most prolific negative-emission technology included in IAMs and is used widely in emission scenarios. It has the distinct feature of providing energy while also, in principle (12), removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Assuming that carbon is valued, BECCS can thus provide an economic benefit that may offset, at least in part, the additional costs of using the technology (13). Generally, carbon is assumed to be fully absorbed during biomass growth, captured before or after combustion, and then stored underground indefinitely. Despite the prevalence of BECCS in emission scenarios at a level much higher than afforestation, only one large-scale demonstration plant exists today.

Other negative-emission technologies have not moved beyond theoretical studies or small-scale demonstrations. Alternative and adjusted agricultural practices, including biochar, may increase carbon uptake in soils (9). It may also be possible to use direct air capture to remove CO2 from the atmosphere via chemical reactions, with underground storage similar to CCS. Enhancing the natural weathering of minerals (rocks) may increase the amount of carbon stored in soils, land, or oceans. Introduction of biological or chemical catalysts may increase carbon uptake by the ocean. New technologies, designs, and refinements may emerge over time.

BECCS: A POLITICAL PANACEA

The allure of BECCS and other negative-emission technologies stems from their promise of much-reduced political and economic challenges today, compensated by anticipated technological advances tomorrow. Yet there are huge opportunities for near-term, rapid, and deep reductions today at little to modest costs, such as improving energy efficiency, encouraging low-carbon behaviors, and continued deployment of renewable energy technologies. Why, then, is BECCS used so prolifically in emission scenarios?

The answer is simple. Integrated assessment models often assume perfect knowledge of future technologies and give less weight to future costs. In effect, they assume that the discounted cost of BECCS in future decades is less than the cost of deep mitigation today. In postponing the need for rapid and immediate mitigation, BECCS licenses the ongoing combustion of fossil fuels while ostensibly fulfilling the Paris commitments.

The idea behind BECCS is to combine bioenergy production with CCS, but both face major and perhaps insurmountable obstacles. Two decades of research and pilot plants have struggled to demonstrate the technical and economic viability of power generation with CCS, even when combusting relatively homogeneous fossil fuels (14). Substituting for heterogeneous biomass feedstock adds to the already considerable challenges.

Moreover, the scale of biomass assumed in IAMs—typically, one to two times the area of India—raises profound questions (10) about carbon neutrality, land availability, competition with food production, and competing demands for bioenergy from the transport, heating, and industrial sectors. The logistics of collating and transporting vast quantities of bioenergy—equivalent to up to half of the total global primary energy consumption—is seldom addressed. Some studies suggest that BECCS pathways are feasible, at least locally (15), but globally there are substantial limitations (10). BECCS thus remains a highly speculative technology.

Although BECCS, like all negative-emission technologies, is subject to scientific and political uncertainties, it dominates the scenario landscape. Yet, as recognition of the ubiquitous role of BECCS in mitigation scenarios has grown, so have concerns about its deployment (10, 11). Its land-use impacts could include terrestrial species losses equivalent to, at least, a 2.8°C temperature rise (11), leading to difficult trade-offs between biodiversity loss and temperature rise. There is also little robust analysis of the trade-offs between large-scale deployment of BECCS (and all negative-emission technologies) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But such a level of caution is far removed from the technical utopia informing IAMs. Despite BECCS continuing to stumble through its infancy, many scenarios assessed by the IPCC propose its mature and large-scale rollout as soon as 2030 (see the figure).

MORAL HAZARD AND INEQUITY

The appropriateness or otherwise of relying, in significant part, on negative-emission technologies to realize the Paris commitments is an issue of risk (7). However, the distribution of this risk is highly inequitable. If negative-emission technologies fail to deliver at the scale enshrined in many IAMs, their failure will be felt most by low-emitting communities that are geographically and financially vulnerable to a rapidly changing climate.

The promise of future and cost-optimal negative-emission technologies is more politically appealing than the prospect of developing policies to deliver rapid and deep mitigation now. If negative-emission technologies do indeed follow the idealized, rapid, and successful deployment assumed in the models, then any reduction in near-term mitigation caused by the appeal of negative emissions will likely lead to only a small and temporary overshoot of the Paris temperature goals (3). In stark contrast, if the many reservations increasingly voiced about negative-emission technologies (particularly BECCS) turn out to be valid, the weakening of near-term mitigation and the failure of future negative-emission technologies will be a prelude to rapid temperature rises reminiscent of the 4°C “business as usual” pathway feared before the Paris Agreement (5).

Negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble. There is a real risk they will be unable to deliver on the scale of their promise. If the emphasis on equity and risk aversion embodied in the Paris Agreement are to have traction, negative-emission technologies should not form the basis of the mitigation agenda. This is not to say that they should be abandoned (14, 15). They could very reasonably be the subject of research, development, and potentially deployment, but the mitigation agenda should proceed on the premise that they will not work at scale.

The implications of failing to do otherwise are a moral hazard par excellence.

REFERENCES AND NOTES

1. J. Rogelj et al., Nat. Clim. Change 6, 245 (2016).
2. L. Clarke et al., in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, O. Edenhofer et al., Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge/New York, 2014), pp. 413–510.
3. J. Rogelj et al., Nat. Clim. Change 5, 519 (2015).
4. H. J. Buck, Clim. Change 10.1007/s10484-016-1770-6 (2016).
5. J. Rogelj et al., Nature 534, 631 (2016).
6. K. Anderson, Nat. Geosci. 8, 898 (2015).
7. S. Fuss et al., Nat. Clim. Change 4, 850 (2014).
8. M. Tavoni, R. Socolow, Clim. Change 118, 1 (2013).
9. P. Smith, Glob. Change Biol. 22, 1315 (2016).
10. P. Smith et al., Nat. Clim. Change 6, 42 (2015).
11. P. Williamson, Nature 530, 153 (2016).
12. A. Gilbert, B. K. Sovacool, Nat. Clim. Change 5, 495 (2015).
13. D. L. Sanchez et al., Nat. Clim. Change 5, 230 (2015).
14. D. M. Reiner, Nat. Energy 1, 15011 (2016).
15. D. L. Sanchez, D. M. Kammen, Nat. Energy 1, 15002 (2016).
16. The figure shows the median of the 76 IPCC scenarios that limit the global temperature rise to 2°C with 66% likelihood (2). Realized negative emissions are estimated by converting the BECCS energy consumption [exajoules (EJ) per year], assuming an average biomass emission factor of 100 metric tons of CO 2 per terajoule (TJ) and assuming that 90% of the CO 2 is captured. The emission pledges (INDCs) in 2030 are estimated based on cumulative emissions from 2011 to 2030 (5).

Will Developing Nations Hack the Climate?

Small-scale geoengineering? UAE’s rain-making mountain

Plans are currently being modeled by the UAE to build a mountain and seed clouds above it in order to tackle an acute water shortage. This isn’t necessarily geoengineering (extreme weather modification maybe), but the thinking behind it mirrors the wrong approach being taken to tackling climate change, laid out since the Paris Agreement was signed. In the same why that drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions now is much more certain to be an effective solution to the problem of climate change than future geoengineering, or relying on unproven negative emissions technologies to balance carbon budgets in the second half of the century, surely massive water conservation efforts are much more likely to be successful in tackling a water shortage than trying to engineer geography to make it rain more? The article below is a good summary of the arguments against the UAE’s new mountain.

Hell No, the UAE Should Not Build a Rain-Making Mountain to Fix Its Water Problems

by Alissa Walker (GIZMODO)

It sounds like the plot of a summer blockbuster, but the United Arab Emirates is apparently quite serious about building a mountain to increase rainfall in the region. Would it work? Probably. But instead of launching an infrastructure project where a very rich country attempts to dig its way out of a drought, the UAE needs to get serious about conserving its water.

The science behind a rain-making mountain is not that outlandish. Moist air arriving on ocean breezes would be trapped by the human-sculpted landform, forcing it up into the atmosphere where it would cool, condense into clouds, and eventually—hopefully!—fall as rain. This is the phenomenon known as a rain shadow, where one side of a mountainous area sees more precipitation (and the other side sees less).

Right now, a team of atmospheric scientists are determining the feasibility of such an undertaking. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)—both legit organizations—are advising on the project, which is in the “detailed modeling” phase. Of course, that means the team could decide that it’s still not a great idea. And let’s hope they do.

There’s no disputing the fact that a large swath of the Middle East is in the midst of a water crisis. A recent report predicted that parts of the region will be uninhabitable by 2050 due to extreme heat exacerbated by climate change, so the problem is likely only going to get worse. But this seems like the wrong way to go about solving that problem, especially when the UAE hasn’t done much to urge its residents to use less water. In fact, these figures from the International Business Times are quite troubling:

The average UAE resident uses an estimated 550 litres of water daily compared to the international average of 170 to 300 litres a day, according to the Federal Water and Electricity Authority.

According to a report by the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, water demand in the region has risen by a whopping 140 percent where resources are “already diminishing due to droughts, low rainfall and the prevalent climate.”

550 liters is about 145 gallons per person per day, an amount that is astronomically high. In California, where Governor Jerry Brown issued strict conservation measures in 2015, nearly every district was able to cut its water to far below that number. After one year, the entire state was using 23.9 percent less water than the year before.

The UAE isn’t known for scrimping on ostentatious infrastructure. It’s got the tallest building in the world (for now) and a harbor filled with artificial islands in the shape of a palm tree. But it’s got a penchant for introducing flashy, financially questionable solutions for civic problems—remember the jet-pack firefighters enlisted to put out its burning skyscrapers? Building a mountain to solve a drought doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it does fit the UAE’s brand. I’m sure it will make a great tourist attraction when it’s not cranking out torrential rainfall (which, to be honest, will be most of the time).

But that’s the most messed up thing about this. Mountain-erecting—like its little brother, cloud-seeding—is not only an expensive temporary fix for a bigger problem, it’s also not a sure thing. When the situation gets worse, what happens then? Build another mountain?

There’s really only one get-wet-quick scheme that’s proven to work. Stop using so much goddamn water.

The New Cold War: The Political Problem of Geoengineering

by Caroline Jones (Brown Political Review)

For a long time, weather control was merely the stuff of Greek myths, super powers, or science fiction novels. But experimentation with altering weather and climate in the academic realm has been explored for nearly two hundred years,, with increasingly — and some might say frighteningly — reactive results. Beyond scholarly curiosity about the human ability to manipulate our immediate environment, climate control has more recently been considered as a possible strategy to combat the effects of global climate change. The methods of large-scale manipulation of natural climate processes, more commonly known as geoengineering, are seen by some as a catch-all solution for what now seems to be an irreversible progression towards potentially catastrophic changes in the global climate. While a technological fix is tempting, the political complexities and potential ramifications, political and environmental, behind implementing such an unpredictable global strategy complicate, if not completely eliminate, the possibility of employing geoengineering technologies.

The 1960’s saw the introduction of climate control into military and political decision making in the United States, with the Science Advisory Committee to President Johnson raising the issue of “deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes,” such as “raising the albedo, or reflectivity, of the Earth.” Only a few years later, the United States participated in the first known example of weather manipulation as part of military strategy when the U.S. Air Force carried out a cloud-seeding mission (adding particles to clouds to increase or instigate precipitation) over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in order to hinder the progress of North Vietnamese troops. This action prompted the United Nations to approve the Environmental Modification Convention, banning the manipulation of weather patterns for hostile or military purposes. In decades since, as public and scientific knowledge about the near-inevitability of climate change has expanded, proposals for large-scale action have come from Nobel Laureates and Pentagon officials alike. Potential strategies include the injection of nearly 1 million tons of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere in order to dull the rays of the sun, ‘fertilizing’ the ocean with carbon-absorbing algal blooms, and establishing a massive field of reflective mirrors in orbit around earth to reflect the sun’s light away from the planet’s surface. Today, some scientists see geoengineering as our only way out of a now-irreversible movement towards potentially dangerous after-effects of global climate change. Those in this school of thought also tend to support more minor and locally controlled methods, such as using cloud seeding to mitigate drought in a certain area (though such experiments in the past have had limited success).The movement towards geoengineering, unfortunately, suffers from techno-centric tunnel vision with regards to its political challenges, and this will ultimately be its downfall. Geo-technologies are specifically designed to target one aspect of climate change (reducing earth’s temperature) but neglect to account for the interconnectedness of the global environment. The environmental ripple effect of implementing these strategies is unpredictable; even small-scale ecosystems are far too complex to be accurately modeled, let alone the entire global climate. If the impracticality and potential environmental hazards posed by geoengineering weren’t enough to dissuade us, we must take another step backward and question the legislative process that goes into implementing strategies that, by definition, impact the entire world: which country’s hand gets to rest on the global thermostat?

One of many complicating factors in the struggle to regulate and combat the effects of global climate change is the fact that some countries actually stand to benefit from the shifting temperatures. Many countries far north of the equator are beginning to see previously desolate, frozen territories slowly thaw into arable land with the potential for mineral and oil extraction. Russia, which has expectantly laid claim to Arctic territories in the event that they melt (thus increasing access to underwater oil reserves), has also articulated the ways in which their agricultural society could benefit from climate change. Though still unlikely, attempts by the United States to turn the global temperature back down have the potential to re-ignite conflict between the United States and Russia, bringing a brand new meaning to the idea of a “cold” war.This disconnect about which countries benefit from climate change naturally ties into the debate about who stands to directly benefit from climate control strategies. The vast majority of the scientific community working on Geoengineering technologies consists of researchers from Western Europe and North America. The homogeneity of this “geoclique”, while not intentionally discriminatory, perpetuates the disenfranchisement of many international communities in the ongoing conversation about climate management. Not only is a majority of the world’s population not representatively engaged in the debate about an issue that unquestionably concerns the entire world, but also the structure of that debate perpetuates existing international tensions about mitigating and addressing the issues presented by climate change. In addition to having different economic and political priorities, communities around the world have a wide variety of ethical and moral values, some of which directly conflict with the idea of climate manipulation as a whole. Neglecting to include these absent voices from the beginning, particularly the voices of indigenous communities and less politically powerful nations in the global south, perpetuates environmental/climate racism (the marginalization or direct endangerment of minority communities with regards to environmental hazards/issues) on a global scale.

There’s no denying that geoengineering is an exciting frontier in climate science – humanity’s exercise of ultimate control over the power of nature via space mirrors or aerosol artillery is an enticing taste of the futuristic possibilities ahead. It also provides a comforting prospect to believe in, especially when bombarded with the catastrophic imagery of intensifying natural disasters, heat waves, and sea level rise. But the sweeping solutions that geoengineering promises are unpredictable and ungovernable; their development and implementation are politically dangerous and their rippling aftereffects could cause more environmental upheaval than the climate change they were designed to mitigate. Our international political community is not nearly united enough to make such a universal step towards techno-centrism, nor is it sufficiently representative of the global population that will inevitably be effected. Geoengineering is not our climate change safety net — we are far more likely to get tangled in the webbing than we are to be saved.

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.