A Survival Guide to Geoengineering, continued

Action-Reaction

We already have a few hints at what those consequences might be. One study of sulfate-injection geoengineering showed a subsequent change in global rainfall patterns, hitting the Indian subcontinent the hardest. And we know that stratospheric sulfates, natural or not, damage the ozone layer around the world.

But there’s an even bigger problem arising from geoengineering: political conflict. Debates over liability, temperature targets and controlling when to start and stop would be intense. They would inevitably leave some nations or communities feeling like their concerns were ignored, or that they will bear the brunt of any negative impacts.

Both the deployment and prohibition of geoengineering would cause some nations to fear for their very survival. Areas already seeing the effects of global warming (such as low-lying island nations) may push for more aggressive geoengineering, while regions that consider higher temperatures to be beneficial may demand strict limits on it.

Moreover, geoengineering is relatively cheap, well within the budgets of smaller advanced nations or wealthy individuals (former Microsoft engineer Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures Lab is already researching necessary hardware). International cooperation, while desirable, wouldn’t be required for a geoengineering project. Desperation is a powerful driver; a decision made by one nation may not prevent another from acting in its own interest. This wouldn’t just be a case of, say, the United States versus the Maldives, where one nation is significantly more powerful than the other. China and Russia, for example, could easily have different perspectives on the utility of geoengineering, and just how far it should go.

Simply put, the most fundamental driver of international politics is a nation’s desire for survival. Actions perceived to threaten that survival can trigger war. And geoengineering undertaken without international consensus could threaten a number of nations’ sense of security.

Five Steps to Avoiding Disaster

There are some important measures that would help ensure geoengineering, if undertaken, is done in a way that would minimize harm. Even if we ultimately do not adopt geoengineering policies, these steps could provide widespread benefits:

  • Transparency: Decisions about geoengineering made in back-room deals, or in classified international conferences, would cause greater hostility and mistrust than would open debate and transparent decision-making. National leaders may feel unwilling to face the passing negative reactions that would emerge during public discussions. But these reactions pale in comparison to what a hidden agenda would trigger. Transparency also applies to the information gathered during experiments, models and field work. Geoengineering would be the most ambitious and challenging global project ever attempted, and its safe deployment would demand as much analysis as we can muster. The more people we have actively studying the data and posing scientific challenges to the conclusions, the better off we’ll be.
  • Ongoing international advisory group: The complexity of geoengineering argues for coordination of experiments, simulations and other studies intended to forecast the results of a deployment—both the environmental results and, where possible, the political implications. An international panel of scientists and social researchers should provide ongoing advice on the issues that will require greater investigation, active throughout the entire arc of geoengineering work.
  • A bottom-up “Ecoscientists Without Borders”: Top-down bureaucracies have numerous drawbacks, so the official advisory group should be matched by a bottom-up, collaborative organization. I believe this organization should be modeled on groups like Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors Without Borders, a non-governmental organization with a strong humanitarian perspective and clear international, non-political, legitimacy.
  • Clear mechanisms for resolving disputes: Disagreements over the impacts of geoengineering are inevitable, no matter how well-handled the deployment. One way to avoid having those disagreements turn hostile is to have established mechanisms for resolving the disputes. These could be part of the International Court, the United Nations or even a new body, as long as they are seen as having global legitimacy. One side-benefit is that these mechanisms could be applied more broadly, handling issues of environmental conflicts of all sorts, including water access and cross-border pollution.
  • Ban (with teeth) on non-state projects: All of these guidelines presume country-led geoengineering projects. Yet, as the Myhrvold case suggests, the cost of geoengineering is such that a wealthy individual or corporation could potentially launch a project without national support.But without even the pretense of democratic consensus, such a project would be provocative, and the country the rich individual or company calls home would still be blamed. Individual or corporate geoengineering projects not part of a government-led program should be limited to small-scale, proof-of-concept experiments. Any attempt to undertake full-scale, independent geoengineering should be met with the full force of law. Charges of “crimes against humanity” may even be warranted. Harsh? Perhaps. But it’s difficult to overstate how quickly uncoordinated, opaque and insufficiently-modeled geoengineering projects could turn catastrophic. Environmentally, the potential for unintended consequences (i.e. rapid degradation of the ozone layer, changing rainfall patterns, sterilization of parts of the ocean) is enormous. Politically, the likelihood of misinterpretation of intent, popular anger and fears of militarization is almost overdetermined.

Like it or not, geoengineering may be part of our response to climate change over the next decade. Protests and sternly-worded letters won’t matter when a country or region is desperate to avoid environmental catastrophe. We must work to avoid the perceived need for geoengineering, while making certain that our global institutions are ready to manage such projects if and when they emerge. And we must do so soon.

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JAMAIS CASCIO is a research fellow at the Institute for the Future, and the author of Hacking the Earth: Understanding the Consequences of Geoengineering. He has worked for more than a decade as a futurist, focusing on technology, ethics and sustainability. At the end of 2009, Foreign Policy magazine selected him as one of their Top 100 Global Thinkers.