October 2, 2017

Rightly Governing Solar Geoengineering Research

For the first time in five years, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) is updating its position statement on climate geoengineering research. The AGU’s draft statement is up for public review.  The Niskanen Center shared our developing views on the appropriate regulation and support for research with the AGU last Monday.

Climate geoengineering is the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth system to alter the climate. To avert the worst effects of climate change, future policymakers might decide to try to make Earth more reflective (and thereby cool the climate) by releasing aerosol particles in the stratosphere or brightening clouds through a process called solar radiation management (SRM). Theoretically, such interventions could substantially and quickly cool the global climate, providing an immediate response to potential climate change-related disasters. Economic analyses indicate that preserving SRM as an option to stave off global warming has an option value in the trillions of dollars.

The AGU draft statement represents an important addition to the growing call for serious investigation into geoengineering. As the largest organization for earth and space scientists, AGU represents the scientists who will carry out geoengineering research. As such, their perspectives on the appropriate norms and regulations to govern such research is important.

The draft statement clearly pointed out many issues surrounding geoengineering, covering the risky nature of the technology, public misgivings, and need for careful governance control. The AGU also recognized the need for geoengineering research to expand to outside experimentation and expanding governance for oversight and accountability. The statement reaffirmed the motivation behind geoengineering and pointed out important facts regarding its risks and benefits, but we believe it can – and should – do more.

In our comments, we recommended that the AGU go further than suggesting appropriate guiding principles for governance and make more “actionable and specific provisions.”

To create an innovative and well-funded research environment while protecting public welfare, we suggested that the AGU support a clear delineation between the governance of geoengineering research and the governance of geoengineering deployment. This would only require establishing a hard cap on the size and scope of research activities, to clarify that the climate should not be perturbed significantly in the course of any research. Experiments large enough to have measureable regional effects would be banned, alleviating concerns about a slippery slope and forcing legislative reexamination once we better understand the uncertainties associated with geoengineering deployments. Meanwhile, de minimis experiments – too small to noticeably affect the earth’s surface – could be guided by light regulation to maximize innovation and accelerate scientific progress.

Additionally, we highlighted that establishing national governance would address the biggest challenges for geoengineering research: international governance and public support. We believe that national governance can serve as a test-bed for governance ideas, and seed discussions on international deployments of SRM that may or may not occur for two decades.

Finally, government support for solar geoengineering experiments in the form of “public funding, transparency reporting requirements, and hard caps on experimental impacts” will create demand for this research and establish social license for researchers to operate with the public’s trust.

We share the AGU’s sentiment that solar geoengineering must be researched. However, before we can govern solar geoengineering deployment, we need to first understand it. Small-scale field tests, a domestic regulatory governance structure for research, and the social license afforded by a permissive regulatory structure are of paramount importance to generate this understanding.