The problematic governance of climate engineering

Deployment of climate engineering faces formidable and perhaps insurmountable governance challenges, even if it looks technically feasible.  This prospect should reinforce efforts to reduce emissions.

If climate change becomes too severe some might favour climate engineering  …

This post looks very briefly at governance of climate engineering – managing the total net solar radiation the earth absorbs (Solar Radiation Management), most likely by injecting particles into the stratosphere[i].  I’ll assume a highly favourable case in which deployment appears technically feasible, likely to be at least partly  effective and cheap; is gradual and modified in response to experience; and seeks only to moderate changes, for example by offsetting (say) half of the additional radiative forcing in order to reduce the risks[ii].

Whatever its merits, almost no one who has looked seriously as the issues thinks that climate engineering is a substitute for reducing emissions.  There are problems that climate engineering won’t fix, such as ocean acidification.   There are also likely to be severe side-effects, such as disruption to rainfall patterns.  And the full effects of deployment are impossible to know in advance, even after thorough research.

Despite these drawbacks, many are becoming concerned that slow progress in reducing emissions may require climate engineering as the least undesirable option – an emergency response to forestall imminent catastrophic climate change.

But the control of any “global thermostat” is likely to be contentious …

However, it is not at all clear how agreement would be reached to deploy climate engineering, and how the deployment would then be governed.  The effects of climate engineering will be global, so some kind of global arrangement will be necessary for general acceptance of its legitimacy.  But different parts of the world would be affected differently, with consensus about what constitutes an emergency unlikely[iii].  Some vulnerable countries might favour deployment even at a relatively low threshold.  Others may be more cautious.  Some are likely to be against deployment on principle.  There might also be demands by some for compensation for adverse effects that could be very difficult to agree.  And acceptance may need to go beyond governments to the public, which is likely to have widely differing views.

These difficulties are likely to be compounded because early action may be required to forestall an emergency, because of lags in the climate system.  However signals may not be sufficiently clear early enough, so any emergency may become irreversible before there is agreement on action.

Intergenerational effects complicate things further.  Climate engineering would commit future generations to certain pathways, and the legitimacy of this would be difficult to establish.

With unilateral action a severe risk …

Failure to reach some kind of global agreement might lead to a single country, or small groups of countries, deploying unilaterally whatever the doubts about the legitimacy of such actions.  This would be very likely lead to international tension and potentially to conflict as states saw their vital national interests threatened.  This conflict would likely be exacerbated the problems of dealing with climate change, including, for example, threats to food supplies and large-scale migration.  This could in turn reduce trust and political co-operation, making agreement even more difficult.  It is hard to say how serious such a scenario would be, but it is not a welcome prospect and could potentially become an immensely dangerous threat to global political and social stability.

But no clear route to building the necessary frameworks to ensure legitimacy of  deployment …

All of this implies at the very least the need for strong frameworks – international treaties and processes, perhaps underpinning new institutions – to manage any deployment and reduce the risks of conflict.    There is currently very little in place.  Some existing laws and institutions are relevant, and initial regulation is likely to build gradually drawing on some of these[iv].  For example, states that are party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity have adopted a decision that explicitly restricts implementation of climate engineering that may affect biodiversity (which is in practice all likely cases) until a scientific basis exists to justify it taking account of the risks.  However this is not intended for broader decisions making.  The Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) may require Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) to be made.  In some cases the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or other Hostile use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD) may be relevant.  The UNFCCC could play a role, although does not appear to be doing so to date, as could UNEP and international forums such as the G20.  The UN Security Council could get involved in the case of conflict.  Lessons from outside environmental governance may be helpful, such as those from nuclear non-proliferation.

However none these arrangements appear sufficient for wider governance of climate engineering deployment, or to be likely to grow into something adequate.  This implies the need for a new institution or at least a set of formal arrangements for global governance, which at the very least substantially expands the remit of current institutions and treaties.

The precedents for effectiveness of any such regime do not look promising.  The UNFCCC has over 20 years failed to reach adequate agreement on mitigation pathways, despite reduction of emissions being unambiguously a good thing, although potentially costly.  Whatever agreement is reached in Paris in a few weeks it looks likely to remain inadequate to the required task.

Indeed there does not appear to be an example of global agreement to effectively manage a problem anything like as consequential, difficult, and diverse and extensive in its impacts as climate engineering.  For example the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion dealt with a much more tractable problem.  Effective arrangements for governing climate engineering may simply prove impossible to realise.

Some sorts of global emergency might arise that is so clear cut that all major nations can agree that the only remaining possibility is deployment of climate engineering.  But this sounds more like international panic than international governance.

Implying all the more need for greater emissions reductions …

It is often said that the technological problems and risks of climate engineering imply that there in every need to put as much effort as possible into emissions abatement.  This is true.  But governance also matters.  The lack of good prospects for adequate and effective governance of climate engineering, as much as any technical challenges it may raise, should reinforce concentration on efforts to reduce emissions.

Adam Whitmore – September 2015

Thanks to Carlos Munoz Browning, who provided me with his research, on which some of this post draws .


[i] A good review of such techniques and their application is provided in the US National Academy of Sciences recent report at

[ii] For more on this type of scenario see:  A temporary, moderate and responsive scenario for solar geoengineering, David W. Keith  & Douglas G. MacMartin Nature Climate Change 5,  201–206 (2015)

[iii] For a fuller discussion of some of these points see Climate emergencies do not justify engineering the climate, Jana Sillmann, et al. Nature Climate Change 5, 290–292 (2015)

[iv] For a discussion of some of these possibilities see Options and Proposals for the International Governance of Geoengineering, Bodle et al. (2013)

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