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Could we control our climate?
Could we control our climate?

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4.3 Governance and law

Science and engineering are, of course, not the only considerations for the design and deployment of geoengineering: political and legal mechanisms are key.

  • Which three of the six geoengineering methods you studied in Session 5 would have substantial global or continental impacts on climate and therefore would require international cooperation and coordination for decision-making and deployment?

  • a. 

    Marine cloud brightening


    Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS)


    A solar shield


    Urban albedo


    Stratospheric sulfate aerosols


    Ocean fertilisation

    The correct answers are a, c and e.

  • A solar shield, stratospheric sulfate aerosols and marine cloud brightening would each act at global or continental scales and, in principle, could be set to balance any greenhouse gas forcing. The scale and magnitude of these large-scale SRM methods mean international cooperation and coordination would be required.

    Urban albedo has only local effects on climate, so could be deployed at a national scale or smaller.

    The two CDR methods (BECCS and ocean fertilisation) do affect global atmospheric CO2 but are much more limited in their magnitude from a single action. CDR methods would therefore also require only local decision-making at the national or smaller scale.

The politics and law of international-scale SRM are seen as far more contentious and troublesome. Potential questions for international SRM governance identified by the US National Research Council (2015) are:

  1. How is it decided when the benefit to albedo modification will outweigh the harm? And how should we judge that?
  2. What obligation do the acting parties have to compensate others for damages, anticipated or otherwise, caused by albedo modification? Who decides causality and how is it determined?
  3. Who decides what is benefit versus harm, and on what time and space scales are such determinations made?
  • Think about one potential difficulty with the group of questions labelled as (2) above.

  • It may be very difficult to determine whether one group has caused harm to another for several reasons:

    • the Earth is a complex system, so multiple factors are changing and interacting;
    • climate change is a distribution (i.e. inherently statistical), so a given action could lead to a wide range of possibilities;
    • attribution of climate change is also inherently statistical, so determining causality is always challenging and uncertain.

There are currently no specific political mechanisms for governing international SRM research and deployment. Nor have legal mechanisms been accepted, though some existing national laws would apply.

US federal laws require weather modification (defined as ‘any activity performed with the intention of producing artificial changes in the composition, behavior, or dynamics of the atmosphere’) to be reported, which potentially means SRM research must by law be open access (National Research Council, 2015).

There are also relevant international treaties, which vary in their degree of legal requirement. For example, solar shields would fall under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed in the midst of the Space Race between Cold War rivals, the US and former Soviet Union. This states that outer space should be used ‘for the benefit and in the interests of all countries’, and that any party placing an object there is ‘internationally liable for damage to another State Party’ (National Research Council, 2015).

Closer to home, the United Nations 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), promoting the ‘conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity’, has been adapted with increasingly strong statements regulating ocean fertilisation. In May 2008, the CBD issued an effective moratorium:

… requests Parties and urges other Governments … to ensure that ocean fertilization activities do not take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities … and a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism is in place for these activities; with the exception of small scale scientific research studies within coastal waters …

Conference of the Parties (COP) 9 Decision IX/16, Convention on Biological Diversity (2008)
  • What are the potential problems with giving an ‘exception’ in the COP 9 quote above?

  • The wording is not very precise: there is no definition of ‘small scale’ or the extent of coastal waters. Even the word ‘scientific’ could be debated, depending on the measurements taken and the motivations of the studies.