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EnvironmentShould there be a ‘non-use’ agreement on solar geoengineering?

Should there be a ‘non-use’ agreement on solar geoengineering?

Should there be a ‘non-use’ agreement on solar geoengineering?

Why I signed the decision for a non-use agreement, and what which may mean for research

Although I’m a newbie on the Emmett Institute, I actually have been working on geoengineering for a decade now. I actually have heard countless arguments over whether and the way solar geoengineering might be useful within the struggle to administer climate change. I actually have seen deeply misleading claims by each its supporters and detractors, many attempting to coopt the problems and victims of climate injustice to their case. So why have I signed as much as an initiative by senior scholars from the social sciences which could seem like doing the identical thing – on this case calling on governments to withdraw support from the event or use of solar geoengineering, without first engaging with those whose interests they claim to be defending?

The ‘no-use’ call and geoengineering research

There are five key asks of the ‘no-use’ campaign with respect to solar geoengineering. Don’t fund technology development. Don’t permit outdoor experiments. Don’t issue patents for technologies. Don’t deploy the technologies. And don’t support them in international institutions. The total open letter is offered here. Within the months since its release it has polarised the climate research community. Particularly so across the query of what it means for research into solar geoengineering.

Even many researching the science or politics of geoengineering are deeply cautious about whether its deployment could ever be justified. But they see a powerful case for more research, as well put by Kate Ricke in Nature just this week. And a few of them fear that the non-use agreement (NUA) effectively advocates a ban on (no less than publicly-funded) research. Against this among the more vociferous supporters of the NUA are afraid that even research will bolster continued delay in emissions reduction. They argue for defunding or tightly regulating all solar geoengineering research – drawing analogies with  chemical weapons research, for instance. Sadly either side appear to query the motives of their opponents, reasonably than seeing these issues as legitimate topics of debate that demand public or political judgements.

Fortunately, for many of the lecturers involved this division doesn’t extend to their views on deployment, especially business deployment. The recent announcements from ‘Make Sunsets’ that they’re selling ‘cooling credits’ based on an untested and unverified type of solar geoengineering has generated condemnation from all sides. This has included a rapid announcement on a ban on geoengineering activities and experimentation by the government of Mexico. But this business initiative makes clear that governance of solar geoengineering – and of solar geoengineering research – is a live issue.

Over several years I actually have made repeated efforts to advertise reflexive governance of geoengineering research (including here, here, and here). I actually have highlighted various ways by which idealized modelling and technological speculation tends to facilitate predatory delay and procrastination. At the identical time, I actually have seen the impacts of exaggerated guarantees and misleading modelling of carbon removal technologies play out. Procrastination and co-option by business interests set on resisting a phase-out of fossil fuels has flourished (see for instance here).

A ‘charm offensive’ in favor of research

Yet lately, key advocates for solar geoengineering research have actively sought to normalize the concept, especially within the USA. For the reason that election of Joe Biden, they’ve implemented what looks reasonably like a coordinated ‘charm offensive’ to set a US-led global agenda for research and development.

The NAS report ‘Reflecting Sunlight’ epitomizes this process. Despite recognizing some limitations and risks in conventional research methods, it prioritizes increased research budgets and programmes ahead of public deliberation and international engagement to ascertain effective governance and regulation. And such a normalization of research – from my reading of the social science literature – risks enabling further climate procrastination.  It is likely to be dressed up as rational trade-offs in integrated assessment models, or as sustaining fossil fuel use within the interests of the poor. But procrastination via normalization will occur unless we intervene to forestall it.

So while I think more research into solar geoengineering could yet be priceless, I feel the unilateral, preemptive approach that has gained momentum lately needs to be spiked. The typical person’s response to learning about solar geoengineering is crudely, to see it as ‘silly’ and possibly ‘evil’. I fear that such views will only spread if efforts to push unregulated modelling and research proceed as they at the moment are – even when business deployment attempts are quashed.

The ‘non-use’ call isn’t an ideal instrument. But it surely does provide a platform that might put a halt to efforts to develop solar geoengineering within the technological imaginaries promoted by US scientists and engineers. Yet it doesn’t reject legitimate scientific research into the problem, nor the event of a broader base of information, drawing on methods and epistemologies each of social science, and of decolonial and indigenous scholarship. Its call to ban public funding for development is probably too easily understood or portrayed as a wider ban on research. Nevertheless, the London Convention places a moratorium on ocean fertilization as a business measure, with defined exceptions for legitimate scientific research. We surely can imagine and design effective similar international research governance for solar geoengineering. Such governance should aim to  eliminate – or no less than minimise – the risks of research resulting in undemocratic and securitized types of solar geoengineering that might easily  undermine other climate motion.

A moratorium on deployment

Personally I’d think it sensible to motion the Non-Use call as a moratorium, reasonably than a everlasting ban, but such a measure must be debated. The US, with support from Saudi Arabia, prevented the UNEA from even assessing options for governance of geoengineering. Geoengineering advocates consistently talk-down and ignore the milder measures agreed within the UN CBD. In that context it will seem time for a correct discussion – perhaps on the UNGA – with all options on the table, as much as and including a ban. If countries collectively don’t need to ever use such techniques, it will be good to know that. Otherwise we may sleep-walk right into a situation where solar geoengineering might be our only option which may prevent further climate catastrophe.

Within the respiration space provided by a moratorium, we’d have a meaningful probability to debate the prospects for effective and just governance of such technologies, and to undertake careful balanced risk-assessment. Geoengineering optimists are likely to presume that effective multilateral governance is feasible, or if not, that a ‘coalition of the willing’ should or would act with benign intent within the collective interest. Against this, political, legal and governance scholars are divided on whether effective and just governance is even possible in any respect.  Amongst the various experts on environmental and technology governance signing the NUA initiative, most fear that solar geoengineering is ungovernable, but there are a handful of more optimistic scholars who argue otherwise.

In my view, my PhD research on this area concluded that in the present global political economy, just deployment of geoengineering is infeasible. In that context, pursuit of geoengineering would most definitely undermine existing climate motion in ways that might be on balance way more harmful than any potential gains from deployment. In subsequent work on climate security, I actually have seen additional reasons to fret, particularly because security analysts see solar geoengineering as a highly disruptive technology. They predict that it will inflame international tensions, and thus undermine the capability of states to collaborate on effective climate mitigation. And deliberate disinformation circulated by actors as diverse as extremist groups and the fossil fuel states would exacerbate this problem.

To me it is obvious what a just response to the climate emergency demands straight away: accelerated mitigation to reduce emissions, phasing out of fossil fuels, funding for adaptation and reparations for loss and damage. Within the contemporary world solar geoengineering easily distracts from that already difficult agenda. But taking it off the table (for now) needn’t preclude legitimate, well governed research, nor broad international public deliberation on whether other climate measures is likely to be merited or desirable in the long run.

Division and inclusion

Nonetheless, I’m concerned that the NUA demands may proceed to facilitate division and polarisation, especially if read or presented as looking for a prohibition on all research. I fear that geoengineering research advocates will claim they’re being stifled or censored. Or that they might claim that the non-use suggestion disadvantages notional prospective geoengineering researchers from the worldwide South – as if the present imbalances in international systems will by some means be overcome on this case.

Others might worry that the ‘non-use’ initiative could backfire, and stimulate the denialist right to rally around solar geoengineering. If it were really an effort to ban all research and political engagement with the subject, then it probably would contribute to such a trend. But that interpretation isn’t one I share. Furthermore, if we shape all our political activities in accordance with what works in domestic US politics, then we’re already lost. Procrastination originating within the US has cost the world many years in addressing climate change, and pursuing the chimera of solar geoengineering could fuel yet more procrastination.

Reasonably, I see the NUA as a potentially priceless effort to stimulate a latest inclusive international means of public engagement over climate motion, bringing the voices of those most vulnerable to climate impacts, least answerable for past emissions, and on the sharp end of historic and continuing colonialism and extractivism into the centre of worldwide debate. And possibly at the identical time, we’ll recognise, and set about imagining higher ways to represent other voiceless interests – including future people and other species. I’d hope all climate scholars could support these goals.

Going forward

I plan to proceed using the non-use call as a step towards appropriate international governance of research on this area. I may also proceed to encourage the organizers of the decision to make clear what type of research and research governance they support.

Looking ahead, the outcomes of well-governed research, with appropriate public input – including from global South and indigenous peoples – shaping the agenda, might persuade me to vary my mind a couple of development and deployment ban/moratorium as proposed by the NUA. Then again, continued US-led, instrumental research pushes, based on utilitarian ethics and presumptions in regards to the inevitability of a deeply unequal and divisive economic model, would likely harden my objections to solar geoengineering development.

climate research, governance, solar geoengineering


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