Governing Climate Engineering By Unpacking Underlying Assumptions

Against normalizing unexamined assumptions about climate futures.

How should humanity deal with the suggestion that technology holds the answer to the contemporary climate crisis? There is some urgency to this question since proposals to technically alter the Earth’s climate system have received sustained attention both in the scientific community and in popular debate. Climate engineering, also known as geo-engineering, is an umbrella term to describe technological interventions to reduce the greenhouse effect; one approach would reduce the amount of solar radiation that converts into heat upon reflection by the earth’s surface (known as solar radiation management), another would reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases that trap this heat in the atmosphere and prevent it from simply radiating back into space.

We urgently need effective action to mitigate climate change. This urgency fuels both support for exploring climate engineering proposals and criticism of it. Risk is an important part of this debate – can we really control climate-altering technologies? So is the question of whether, under a hypothetical scenario of climate engineering interventions buying us extra time, we would behave like the ant in Aesop’s fable and stock up food reserves for winter (i.e. reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately) or carry on with (carbon) business as usual until the predictable end catches us off guard, like the grasshopper that preferred leisure over precaution in a time of plenty.

These are anything but trivial concerns. At the same time it is important to acknowledge that right now, most climate engineering proposals are at a conceptual stage, taking the form of reports, funding applications or code in computer simulations of Earth’s climate system. Assumptions and projections thus significantly determine current deliberations about the desirability and feasibility of climate engineering. When we speculate about who might take what action under a hypothetical technology scenario, we risk normalizing such scenarios rather than critically examining their underlying assumptions. These assumptions are as much political as they are technical and reflect the expertise and values of a relatively small group of scientists – predominantly white and male – who advocate for climate engineering research.

Researching views on climate engineering

Examining such assumptions is therefore important for debates on climate engineering research and development. Part of this work consists in theoretical and philosophical criticism, another seeks to broaden the debate by looking at how different audiences relate to the topic by studying media discourses, running focus groups with lay people, or interviewing stakeholders. The research reported here looked at scientists who advise the European Commission on research funding priorities within the domain of sustainability and climate change. These scientists’ professional lives revolve around solving the same problem climate engineering purportedly addresses, but they don’t have a direct stake in climate engineering itself.

The interviews were broadly framed around the possibilities of technology for climate action but gradually honed in on climate engineering as a topic of conversation. Subsequent analysis of the transcripts (15 interviews, each lasting approximately one hour) revealed several distinct clusters of views.

First, interviewees all shared the view that climate engineering can ever only be a treatment for the symptoms of climate change, rather than addressing the root problem of resource overconsumption.

Second, interviewees were concerned that if we ‘fiddle’ with the climate we might set in motion processes whose outcomes we cannot predict, let alone control. This view was more pronounced with regard to solar radiation management and other highly interventionist techniques (such as artificially induced algae blooms to bind CO2), because they modify complex, circulatory systems. Locally confined proposals – such as capturing and sequestrating CO2 through technical processes – were viewed rather differently.

Third, the moral dilemma epitomized by the ant and the grasshopper fable – moral hazard, in economic jargon – surfaced in the interviews, but some interviewees were keen to point out that this moral tale doesn’t quite fit the case of climate policy. Such policy is driven by considerations about mobility, energy, and food, which create interdependencies that are more complex than a yes/no position on the continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Fourth, interviewees further complicated the picture when they pointed to the wealth disparities between the global North and South. Such disparities not only make finding a consensus on climate policy a challenge but pose access limitations to climate-friendly technologies. This concern with spreading technology access contrasts with debates on climate engineering as a security risk; it is thought that access to solar radiation management technology ought to be restricted, much like nuclear weapons, to eliminate the risk of a dictator holding the planet hostage. While these two perspectives don’t address the very same technologies, it is an interesting juxtaposition nonetheless that brings in focus issues of democracy and global justice that a security frame obfuscates too easily.

Lastly, there was consistent support for researching climate engineering schemes. While this may sound surprising considering the rather critical views the interviewees expressed, it is important to look at how they framed their support for research. They saw exploring different options as a wise, ‘don’t put your eggs in one basket’, research policy strategy, especially since many research endeavors fail. Moreover, research beyond basic proof of concept is a costly commitment and climate engineering research is a long way from this stage. Interviewees considered that whatever comes before such commitment to be within the domain of science’s self-regulation, whereas the decision to deploy would be a societal one.

Many of the interviewees’ views were not original in the sense that previous studies have documented them in lay as well as in publication. But this study added novel elements by showing these expert interviewees’ insistence that climate change is a multi-issue policy challenge that is set in a highly unequal world. Believing that climate engineering would be a technical remedy to political failure, even under such conditions, as some proponents of climate engineering maintain, might well spawn an intractable policy issue in its own right.

This study, How scientists advising the European Commission on research priorities view climate engineering proposals, was recently published in the journal Science and Public Policy.