25 April 2019 |by Janos Pasztor and Kai-Uwe Schmidt | Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative
The absence of effective, comprehensive governance surrounding the research and decision-making around the potential deployment of solar geoengineering technologies (as part of the global risk management approach for climate change) poses a critical risk to current and future generations.
This may seem a curious position given that as of this writing, the global effort is on mobilizing mitigation action, and no large-scale international effort to reflect back more solar radiation actually exists (beyond a few models in a few laboratories).
But this situation could change more rapidly than we think. As climate stresses increase, and if action to limit temperature rise by dramatically reducing emissions and removing the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere remain at today’s woefully inadequate level, a growing number of actors are likely to suggest looking at these ideas, to potentially buy society some breathing space.
Late last year, Congressional leaders from both parties in US House of Representatives—a body which in the last decade has opposed efforts to mitigate human-caused climate change—held a hearing with a view to putting solar geoengineering research firmly on the agenda.
As early as this year, Harvard University’s SCoPEx experiment may move research on stratospheric aerosol injection from the lab to the outdoors for the first time. There is growing pressure to explore ways of protecting or refreezing the Artic, to protect coral reefs, or to brighten clouds at sea.
And there is the possibility that the world may—sooner than expected—experience a climate tipping point so grave that public pressure to “do something” becomes overwhelming. Solar geoengineering could easily find itself on the table as a possibility, as according to scientists this is the only technology that could potentially reduce temperatures sufficiently rapidly to avoid a lengthy overshoot of the 1.5-2°C temperature rise goal, and potentially irreversible impacts related to it.
Insufficiently governed solar geoengineering could pose a lasting risk to human well-being and security. As we wrote last year in Science, “The world is heading to an increasingly risky future and is unprepared to address the institutional and governance challenges posed by these technologies.”
Furthermore, these technologies should not be deployed in isolation from massive action on mitigation and removals. The globe faces a risk that requires a holistic risk management approach that comprises informed action on the cause and on the symptoms.
The bottom line is that decisions regarding any deployment of solar geoengineering technologies should not be taken unless we know a lot more about their risks and potential benefits, and about how we would govern them.
The question is where we would even begin to create that governance. What are the appropriate bodies? Which fora would be most effective, and viewed as most inclusive and legitimate by the world’s governments, since solar geoengineering would affect every country in the world in one way or another?
The answer, it seems to us and others in the field, is that no one body or process can handle this alone. In a multipolar world, the effective governance of emerging technologies depends on engaging multiple actors, processes and institutions, from the global to the local.
But we face an early, difficult challenge. Key actors are holding back from essential discussions about the governance of solar geoengineering. There are numerous reasons for this, including ‘moral hazard’ and a lack of awareness on the part of decision-makers as to the risks and potential benefits.
To overcome this reluctance requires leaders ready to champion the discussion of these issues, to share information and mobilise others.
We also need governments and institutions to develop the knowledge and build the capacity necessary for informed decision-making: whatever the final decisions may be.
We will encourage countries to embrace our approach and governance priorities. And we will work with civil society organizations, faith groups, think tanks, humanitarian organizations, as well as sub-national actors, to join the approach and contribute to the emergence of governance of solar geoengineering.
None of this will be simple, but we need to start now.
Within a year, we may see the world’s first outdoor experiment on stratospheric aerosol injection take place in the skies above Arizona, yet for the most part governments are not addressing the profound questions this poses.
If that doesn’t change, we may be in danger of events overtaking our capacity to respond.