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EnvironmentComparing the Risks of Climate Change and Geoengineering

Comparing the Risks of Climate Change and Geoengineering

Comparing the Risks of Climate Change and Geoengineering

The OSTP has adopted a ‘risk-risk’ framing in its report on geoengineering research: will this help or hinder sound climate policy?

Last month’s report on solar geoengineering research from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) consolidated a shift within the discourse on this controversial technology. Over recent years advocates for more research have increasingly adopted a ‘risk-risk’ framing. As Gernot Wagner puts it in ‘Geoengineering: the Gamble’: “The choice is all about risk-risk tradeoffs”. He urges us to place the risks of doubtless pursuing solar geoengineering against “the risks of unmitigated climate change.”

The National Academy of Sciences adopted a ’risk-risk’ framing in its 2021 report. So too did the UN Environment Programme earlier this 12 months. And the identical framing now features centrally within the OSTP report. Here it is commonly linked to a priority that continued climate change might trigger irreversible tipping points within the climate system. Within the abstract, one might think it easy common sense to evaluate a poorly understood and potentially dangerous technology within the context of the risks it hopes to mitigate. However the risk-risk framing forms a part of an increasingly polarised solar geoengineering debate. A proposal for a non-use agreement has provided a lightning rod for dispute.  Advocates of research and opponents of deployment each accuse the opposite of bad faith interventions.

On this setting advocates arguing for more research use the risk-risk framing  far more than opponents. Intentionally or not, this move rejects concerns that the risks of solar geoengineering could be so great as to remove it from consideration. Furthermore, emphasizing ‘risk-risk’ tradeoffs implies that opponents either overestimate the risks of geoengineering or underestimate the risks of climate change, or each.

At an extreme, invoking existential risks from climate change, and a possibility to mitigate them with solar geoengineering, such advocacy implies just one conclusion. Considering, and even actively pursuing, geoengineering may appear especially reasonable if the climate risks within the  ‘risk-risk’ tradeoff include tipping point concerns (as within the OSTP report). Nevertheless it stays hugely uncertain whether tipping points could really be avoided through geoengineering. Furthermore there are also plausible scenarios wherein pursuit of geoengineering itself could underlie catastrophic risks, as an example as a trigger for nuclear conflict. This makes such a conclusion much less clear cut.

Give the polarised nature of geoengineering debate, we should always rigorously interrogate the adoption of a ‘risk-risk’ assessment approach using a climate change context. A more conventional ‘risk-benefit’ evaluation of geoengineering – similar to that by the Royal Society back in 2009 – already attends to climate risks, insofar as they’re affected by geoengineering. So what’s latest? The danger-risk framing perhaps helpfully emphasizes climate change risks, which have long seemed under-estimated in policy responses. But what more does the move from risk-benefit to risk-risk do? And does that make it a positive shift, or raise different concerns?

Balancing risks is hard

I see two particularly worrying implications. First the risk-risk frame tends to imply that the only alternative to climate harms is solar geoengineering. This is able to be a false duality, despite the rapidly depleting carbon budget for 1.5°C. Some advocates argue that solar geoengineering is important to carry temperature rises to 1.5°C. But such a conclusion is determined by debatable presumptions in regards to the feasibility of rapid social change, carbon removal techniques and the acceptability of temporary temperature overshoot. We must always not exclude alternative pathways to 1.5°C from assessment, even in the event that they might involve other risks and harms. Worse, some but not the entire risk-risk framings (like Wagner’s) suggest (perhaps unintentionally) that the choice to solar geoengineering is unmitigated climate change, as if no further emissions reduction or adaptation will be foreseen.

Second, the risk-risk framing, setting assessment by way of climate risks, excludes other logics for geoengineering. In other words it ignores the prospect that countries might deploy or avoid solar geoengineering for reasons aside from looking for to cut back climate change. To research advocates, steeped in climate science, it’d appear obvious that climate change could be the logic.

But to security experts, and students of political science, geoengineering appears as a hybrid, dual-use security technology. Its deployment might involve climate-related goals, but that might merely mean masking impacts enough to justify continued exploitation of fossil fuels for geopolitical reasons. The danger equation in a world of high continued emissions, masked by solar geoengineering, could look very different from one where an idealized intervention helps ‘shave the height’ of emissions related temperature rises. The implications of geoengineering initiated, or manipulated as a security intervention for relative national advantage might look very different again

The danger-risk framing further consolidates a discourse that presumes the secret is ‘risk’ relatively than ‘uncertainty’. This too will be problematic. ‘Risk’ is known as exposure to danger or loss – an inherently undesirable thing. Nevertheless it also implies a level of knowability and calculability which may simply not exist on this space. Conventional approaches calculate risk because the product of likelihood, exposure and impact, but for a lot of climate and geoengineering outcomes, all of those aspects will be deeply uncertain. The risks inherent in treating something as a calculable risk can fall in either direction. Analysts might overlook entirely plausible, yet unquantifiable impacts. Or false confidence in the dimensions of the threat might justify undemocratic, and inequitable responses, as seen in lots of national responses to threats of terrorism.

Risk framings also suggest particular approaches to climate justice. They demand consideration of exposure, and infrequently also vulnerability. But they give attention to the mixture numbers exposed to the hazard, and are likely to treat these conditions as natural circumstances relatively than a consequence of social or economic aspects. Thus a risk framing will help policy makers higher consider who’s exposed and vulnerable to climate impacts. Nevertheless it may also distract their attention away from the processes by which vulnerability and exposure are generated – for instance through constructing on floodplains, or through economic processes generating precarity.

Given these problems, and the polarised context, can we rescue risk-risk evaluation and make it productive for climate policy? Or should we be objecting to its dominance in the controversy? The reply will probably rely on whether advocates for risk-risk evaluation can separate themselves from deliberate efforts to distort debate, and recognise and proper the possible unintended distortions arising within the risk-risk framing.

If we assume good faith desire to avoid dangerous climate change according to social justice (claims seen on each side of the controversy), then there isn’t a inherent reason why a risk-risk evaluation could be inappropriate. Nevertheless it would have to deal with the issues described above.

The evaluation should start from a transparent definition, and discover exactly which additional climate risks could be plausibly averted by geoengineering. It should consider the chance that focus given to geoengineering might itself distract from effective timely mitigation. It might need to contemplate a broad range of risks, including geopolitical ones.  And an equally broad range of scenarios including competing deployments, not only idealised (and impractical) designs that minimise the impacts of climate change.

On this context the evaluation would wish to look at the distribution of the risks on each side of the ledger. It should take account of whether those facing the worst of the risks have most say in whether those risks are acceptable. And it should consider the extent to which the scenarios involved might increase vulnerability, or construct resilience.

How does the OSTP report stand in relation to those challenges? It puts environmental justice to the fore, close to each domestic and international distribution of risks and advantages. Nonetheless it does relatively falls into the trap of treating vulnerability as an exogenous factor. Similarly it emphasizes the necessity for a broad range of scenarios. Nevertheless it puts more emphasis on diverse climate responses than on the social and political context. Nonetheless it includes greater than climate risks, stressing the ethical and moral dimensions of decision making on solar geoengineering. But despite highlighting geopolitical risks it merely encourages, relatively than demanding international cooperation and suitable research governance.

The report avoids the worst of the false duality, urging comparison of risks and advantages in “scenarios involving the usage of SRM” with those “related to plausible trajectories of ongoing climate change not involving SRM.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t specify those ‘plausible trajectories’ at this point. Even though it asserts the primacy of emissions reduction, it fails to deal with the risks of mitigation deterrence in any detail. In discussing environmental justice the report mentions a priority that “the potential advantages to frontline communities of SRM could possibly be reduced whether it is used as an alternative to, or reduces, mitigation through emission reductions,” but not the necessity for risk assessment and scenarios to incorporate the potential for such substitution.

I could say far more in regards to the challenges of designing  a just and meaningful risk-risk assessment. But in conclusion I need to notice some contrasts between the OSTP report and one other recent government announcement. In a statement on climate security the European Commission highlights the risks of geoengineering. It indicates a necessity for international assessment of the possible implications for security. However the Commission doesn’t deploy ‘risk-risk’ language. Its approach relatively reflects the European risk culture and its often precautionary stance. The context of climate security brings its own problems, but to support clever judgement, such an assessment would wish to deal with a broad range of risks and scenarios. The US helped defeat proposals for an inclusive and collaborative assessment of geoengineering  on the UN Environment Assembly in 2019. It might be a shame if differences in framing led to an one other such failure  today.

Climate Change, Risk Management, science policy, solar geoengineering


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