Skip to content

Values for Geoengineering Governance

Geoengineering as a response to anthropogenic climate change is of increasing interest to members of the scientific community.  The challenges of developing technologies powerful enough to manipulate the global climate are considerable and varied.   As well as the scientific and technical issues, many people (understandably) have concerns about geoengineering.  Hence issues of governance are key. As the technologies are in their infancy, it is futile at present to propose detailed regulatory structures, but one place to start is to discuss the  values by which the development of geoengineering technologies must be guided.   The Oxford Principles, originally proposed in 2009, were one of the first attempts to do so.

A paper now out in the journal Climatic Change, available here, gives an explanation of the values behind the Oxford Principles:

Principle 1: Geoengineering to be regulated as a public good  acknowledges the idea that acknowledges that “all of humanity has a common interest in the good of stable climate” and the climate must be managed for the general good.

Principle 2: Public participation in geoengineering decision-making in concerned with the value of legitimacy.  Those  affected by a decision should have a say in its making.

Principle 3: Disclosure of geoengineering research and open publication of results invokes the value of transparency

Principle 4: Independent assessment of impacts asserts that research (and any decisions to deploy) must exhibit due diligence and that there is a duty of care to the public.

Principle 5: Governance before deployment highlights the need for an accountable governance structure to be in place before any deployment.

These principles are high-level because at present, they cannot be anything else.   They are as a starting point for debate. The authors  hope that further discussion will serve to elaborate and specify concepts like “general good”, “legitimacy”, “transparency”, “independence”, “duty of care” and “accountability.”  Therefore, comments and discussion are welcomed here.


Share on

3 Comment on this post

  1. In Southern California, and across the agricultural central California valleys, it abundantly clear that weather modification, and by extension, geoengineering practices, are already being implemented.

    Since mid-2012, cloud seeding by high altitude aircraft has been easily and predictably observed during the days ahead of every incoming front. The orderly pattern of spraying flights, the transformation of the trail from thin white line that stretches from horizon to horizon to tendrils of ice crystals, the clear start and stop points of spraying runs including where the aircraft reverse course for another pass, are all clearly visible to any who look skyward and have 15 minutes to watch what is happening.

    During a recent driving vacation from San Diego to Seattle, such cloud seeding operations were easily observed, and just as easily distinguished from common commercial jets that leave little or no persistent trail, from San Diego north almost to San Francisco.

    If the weather of all of California is effectively being manipulated, it is a fair bet that the same is happening elsewhere in the world as well. A web seach reveals many similar reports from other parts of the US and Europe.

    I support the values for geoengineering that are outlined in the post above. And, I would add that that any discussion of geoengineering must first acknoweledge that is has already begun. Governance of such programs, and indeed the resourcing, coordinated operations, and evaluation of results, is clearly already being done in a manner that is not consistent with these values. Therefore any public discussion of values and principles for geoengineering policy must first come to grips with the reality that, in particular, “transparency” and “accountability” are not values embraced by those entitities already doing the geoengineering.

    Keep up the good work, and pick up the pace if you can to catch up with the programs already being implemented.

  2. Hi Clare,

    Interesting stuff, and it’s good to see Oxford making use of its unusually broad skillset here. But I can’t help thinking that these are (1) surprisingly fluffy for something led by Steve Rayner 🙂 and (2) misses an important difference between the sort of public good geo-engineering is and the sort of public good climate change mitigation is. The excellent Scott Barrett* recently drew on a distinction made by Jack Hirshleifer** between public goods which can succeed if one player in the game performs brilliantly vs those which succeed only if all players perform to some minimum level.

    Consider the following: you, Steve Rayner, Tim Kruger and Julian Savulescu live on an island. You each own a quarter of the island. Sea levels are rising and you need to build a sea-wall to keep the sea out. You are each responsible for the sea-wall on your land. Because of the nature of the problem, you all fail if one of you builds a weak wall. Hirshleifer calls this sort of thing a “weakest link” public goods problem. Now imagine a second case, in which the four of you live along a dark road. Julian, being a fancy professor type, lives at the end of the road and is most inconvenienced by the darkness. So (being a fancy professor-type) he foots the bill for street-lighting for the whole street. Presto! Public good provided by the efforts of one superstar. Hirshleifer calls this a “best-shot” public good. Barrett makes a pretty good case that classical climate change mitigation is not quite a weakest link story, but certainly not a best-shot story since any one of several large aggregations not coming to the party could lead to significant damages for everyone, while geo-engineering is a best-shot story.

    I think this is a really significant point for governance principles, since governing a best-shot story is different from governing a weakest link (or similar) story. In the case of classical climate mitigation the question is how to get people to coordinate in the presence of strong incentives to free ride, ie to get them to act in spite of themselves. In the case of geo-engineering the issue is how to get people to refrain from acting unilaterally: “In the case of climate engineering, then, the issue for international law is less about whether to encourage the production of global public goods than about whether to impose limits.”*** But that makes geo-engineering an easier problem to regulate, I think, than classical mitigation for two reasons: (1) identifying and penalizing unilateral action is conceptually simpler than inducing heterogeneous players to coordinate; (2) the UN is actually quite good at this sort of thing (and I count myself as a skeptic about the UN). Non-action is among the founding principles of the UN, and among its few successes are nuclear non-proliferation and the reduction in interstate violence we’ve witnessed since the 1940s. Its charter**** contains lots of stuff about forbearance: the very first principle goes “1.To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”

    I’m not trying to be a literalist here and argue that geo-engineering is a threat to peace or security. But I am arguing that getting parties to refrain from unilaterally doing something they’d kind of like to do is something this structure has has been good at. I think that’s where I’d modify principle 5, at least, to make the default action “not to geo-engineer” (in the same way that Article 1.1 sets the default as removal of threats to peace, even though the UN has sanctioned military action on a number of occasion). So I think the principle ought to be stronger, forbidding action unless the international community make an exception, rather than saying we all need to decide together. And I worry a bit about your principle 2, as stated, too – having every man, his dog and his goddamn carbon footprint invited to everything the UNFCCC does has been paralysing and counter-productive. The fewer players the better.

    * Scott Barrett, Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods (2007).
    **Jack Hirshleifer, From Weakest-Link to Best-Shot: The Voluntary Provision of Public Goods, Public Choice, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1983), pp. 371-386.
    ***Dan Bodansky, What’s in a Concept? Global Public Goods, International Law, and Legitimacy, The European Journal of International Law Vol. 23 no. 3 (2012)

  3. Eastern ontario geo=engineering watch

    please don’t let the mad men rule our sky’s, they are the ones making global warming insane in the membrane.

Comments are closed.