Science, Climate Change and Environmental Justice: Is ‘geoengineering’ the only option to avoid a planetary catastrophe, ‘a climate emergency’? Discussing the advantages and disadvantages associated with ‘geoengineering’ as a regulatory response to climate change

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Geoengineering – the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the earth’s climate to offset global warming – is a nightmare fix for climate change.

Jeff Goodell

Introduction

The rise of global temperature and the difficulty for states to get agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gases has contributed to the call of ‘climate emergency’. The idea of climate-engineering or well known as geoengineering emerged to provide an alternative solution to climate change. However, the question often raised is whether or not geoengineering is an appropriate regulatory response to climate change. The idea of manipulating the earth deliberately on a large scale is controversial. The crux of the matter is, there is no certainty that geoengineering would work, and instead, it could damage the earth worse than climate change. Additionally, creating regulations for the deployment of geoengineering and granting consent from the entire populations is an almost impossible task. Geoengineering could also lead to the possibility of rising inequality, and the application of it could potentially violate relevant treaties. The consequences of geoengineering are high and therefore, the implementation of it shall not take into account. The argument of ‘geoengineering is the only option to avoid a planetary catastrophe’[1]could be acknowledged, however, presumably, the right question supposed to be raised is whether or not geoengineering is capable to counteract climate change. The answer to such a question is ‘no’, as geoengineering does not solve the core issue of climate change.

Understanding Geoengineering

On the basis of its definition, geoengineering is a large-scale intervention to the earth natural system, deliberately, with the intention to overcome climate change. To manage the threat of anthropogenic climate change, this intervention fabricates the earth physical, chemical and biological systems.[2]As stated in the 2009 report by the Royal Society, this deliberate intervention could be specified as a ‘manipulation of the planetary environment’.[3]There are two main classifications of geoengineering; Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), based on the concept of capturing Carbon Dioxide, proposed methods includes, ocean fertilisation; and Solar Radiation Management (SRM), based on the notion of reflecting sunlight back into space, suggested methods include, injecting aerosols, sulphur dioxide, to the stratosphere.[4]There are a substantial amount of plausible consequences on the deployment of geoengineering. These consequences cover various range aspects, from political and legal concerns as well as ethical issues, and therefore, because of its broad consequences, the execution of geoengineering shall not take into account.

Disadvantages of Geoengineering 

  • The Unclear Results of Geoengineering (Precautionary Principle)

There is only one earth, which means that geoengineering could not be tested like other scientific research, hence, the result of geoengineering is unclear. By manipulating the earth to exterminate global warming, many argued that this is a risky route to take.[5]Within this risk, the precautionary principle is the main argument against geoengineering because of the unclear results and potentially overwhelming consequences of the action.[6]The potential risk of what could happen if geoengineering deployed is unforeseeable. The level of uncertainties on the deployment of Carbon Dioxide Removal such as ocean fertilisation is high and the side effects of it will change the ecosystems in a large.[7]This change could potentially have severe impacts on biogeochemical marine ecosystems that might not be a positive change.[8]The same goes for Solar Radiation Management. One could argue that this method has evidently proved to work in the past, by volcanic eruptions.[9]Volcanic eruptions that contain sulphur dioxide has resulted in reducing climate change.[10]This argument is the main justification from the proponent of SRM.

However, it is important to note that volcanic eruption is a natural phenomenon, and it does not occur on a large scale. On top of that, although the ecosystem could survive volcanic eruptions, there is no clear evidence of what would be the consequences of it in the long term.[11]In other words, there is not enough evidence to conclude that the injections would work. Even if there is enough evidence that it would work, and there is not, delivering sulphur to produce the right amount of particles in the stratosphere is a complicated task[12]and thus, the implementation of it is risky and could potentially fail. Furthermore, it is highly possible that sulphur injection could damage the ozone layer.[13]This ozone depletion is due to the increased chlorine activation.[14]Without the ozone layer, solar ultraviolet-B radiation could reach the earth directly and would have a huge impact on human health[15]including the increasing number of cancer rates.[16]Additionally, there is a potential increase in acid rain from the deployment of SRM.[17]In spite of this significant possible consequences, none have been addressed properly. While the research has considered the possible outcome of geoengineering, it does not provide solutions to counteract potential expected jeopardise.[18]

  • The Complexity of Granting Consent and the Possibility to raise Inequality

The further issue with geoengineering is, ‘geoengineering resembles the concept of an experiment being performed on the entire global population’[19]and therefore the deployment of it has to obtain consent from, at least, the government of every state. Stated in principle 2 of Rio Declaration, states have ‘the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction’.[20]This has become a customary international law in the realm of international environmental law.[21]Hence, any states that deploy geoengineering without consulting and receiving consent from other states that would be affected, is unjustified.

Although, some argued that binding regulation is not needed as many states lack of knowledge in geoengineering[22]and arguably would not be competent to make a decision on it, the effect of geoengineering is tremendous, and therefore binding regulation is needed, despite the lack of knowledge in the topic itself, as it could be solved by providing more information on geoengineering to the entire earth populations or in any case, to the representative of states. As binding regulation is needed and it has to granted consent, this raises a very difficult task as ‘one cannot procure informed consent from everybody on the planet’.[23]Even if the consent is not required to be granted from the entire populations and only need to be given from the representative of each state, granting consent in the world politics is complicated. For example, some policies ‘may offer a more tempting target than others for pork barrel politics’[24]and because of this, even if geoengineering is approved, and it is not, ‘the involvement of politics in climate change would make it unlikely for geoengineering to succeed’.[25]

Indeed, as the expansion of regulations contains political involvement[26]the involvement of politics would potentially undermine the objectivity of the regulations. In other words, regulations on geoengineering, like other issues related to climate change, is more likely to be subjective. Those who have been affected by climate change would have different regulations with those who have not. This would make it difficult for states to reach common decisions on the deployment of geoengineering. Moreover, had the deployment was taken, there will be a high potential for disputes between states.[27]For instance, if a natural disaster occurred at the same time with the deployment of geoengineering, those affected by the natural disaster might accuse those who deployed geoengineering and blame geoengineering for the natural disaster.[28]This could lead to a more complicated issue.

Furthermore, the deployment of geoengineering will potentially emerge a greater inequality. Similarly, with climate change, the effects of geoengineering will be unequal.[29]Geoengineering research has suggested that the deployment of SRM would influence the African and Indian monsoons.[30]Even if geoengineering is succeeded in controlling global temperature, it does not oversee local weather.[31]For instance, the injections of aerosols will potentially raise rainfall in India and reduce rainfall in China.[32]Within this, the effect of geoengineering will more likely to be perceived by the southern part of the world. ‘The largest impacts of both climate change and geoengineering are likely to be felt by the poorest communities of the world.’[33]The argument of inequality came from the fact that the research and possible deployment, is taking place in developed states, while the effect of it will be perceived by third world states. One could argue that, had geoengineering is deployed, on the broader landscape it would appear as an experiment taken by the developed states that take place in the developing states. As the decision on whether to research, develop, and deploy geoengineering is based on those in power[34]and as it has been discussed, regulations often is subjective, there is a high potential for the increase of inequality in the use of geoengineering as a regulatory response to climate change. Moreover, with the impacts of geoengineering will be perceived in undeveloped states, solutions to the possible outcome of geoengineering need to be addressed.[35]Nonetheless, none research was found on dealing with potential consequences of geoengineering, including how to provide aid to those who would be affected by the consequences.

Responding to the Statement of ‘Geoengineering is the Only Option to Avoid a Planetary Catastrophe’

The question should be raised is, whether or not it is the only option, not to avoid, but to defeat climate change. Geoengineering is not the only option to avoid climate emergency, as reducing greenhouse gasses would avoid it as well, and clearly not an option to counteract climate change. It is important to emphasise that, geoengineering is only a contemporary solution, without emission reduction, geoengineering will not rectify the planetary catastrophe. For instance, in the case of carbon capture, it could be argued as a temporary solution, as it could temporarily save the earth for the current generation, but it would not last long and thus, might potentially harm future generations. If geoengineering is going to be deployed, it could violate Article 3 (1) of the UNFCCC, stated that all ‘parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind’.[36]The future generations need to be protected as equally as the present generation, and geoengineering does not encompass this. 

Furthermore, as climate change is a ‘wicked problem’, if the hazard is going to be eased, the way to approach the problem is not by ‘avoiding’ it but has to be approached differently.[37]Geoengineering is not solving the problem, because it does not engage with the core issue of climate change. Instead, it could lead to other issues. The argument of ‘slippery slope, one thing leads to another’[38]could apply to geoengineering. For instance, even if the injection of sulphur dioxide to stratosphere succeeds, it would only take a while before another issue such as ocean acidification arises.[39]Like a domino effect, there will always be something further. ‘The unintended consequences of aerosol injection would lead to unending experimentation’.[40]As humans mind is continuously evolving, had geoengineering is deployed, there will be another deliberate manipulation of the earth natural systems that would be justified, for other reasons as solutions to other issues.

Conclusion

The deployment of geoengineering shall not take in place. Although geoengineering might avoid planetary catastrophe, it does not counteract the main issue arise from climate change, and instead, it would potentially raise other significant issues. In line with precautionary principles, there is no certainty that geoengineering would work and the consequences of it could potentially be enormous.[41]Probable consequences include unforeseeable environmental effects such as changes in earth natural ecosystems and ozone layer depletion[42]as well as, incapability to create impartial regulations that would result in inequality. In accordance with ‘slippery slope, one thing leads to another’[43]it would not be long before another issue arises after the deployment of geoengineering, had it approved to be deployed. Additionally, there is concern that deliberately manipulating the earth is ethically unjustified and potentially could violate relevant treaties. Nevertheless, what is crucial to be underlined is the fact that climate change is a ‘wicked problem’[44]and geoengineering is not the right tool to defeat the hazard of climate change. Therefore, instead of gambling in the future of geoengineering, the foremost solution relies on the lowering of ‘human impact on earth through more conventional means’.[45]


[1]Mike Hulme, Can Science Fix Climate Change?: A Case Against Climate Engineering (Polity Press 2014).

[2]Jesse Reynolds, ‘The Regulation of Climate Engineering’ (2011) 3 Law Innovation and Technology.

[3]Tim Lenton and Naomi Vaughan, ‘Introduction’ in Tim Lenton and Naomi Vaughan, Geoengineering Responses to Climate Change (Springer 2013) 1.

[4]Reynolds (n 2).

[5]Michael Thompson and Jan Sieber, ‘Predicting Climate Tipping Points’ in Michael Thompson and Brian Launder (eds) Geo-Engineering Climate Change: Environmental Necessity or Pandora’s Box (Cambridge University Press 2010).

[6]Ralph Bodle, ‘Geoengineering and International Law: The Search for Common Legal Ground’ (2010) 46 Tulsa L. Rev. 305.

[7]RS Lampitt et al., ‘Ocean Fertilization: A Potential Means of Geo-Engineering?’ in Michael Thompson and Brian Launder (eds) Geo-Engineering Climate Change: Environmental Necessity or Pandora’s Box (Cambridge University Press 2010).

[8]WD Davies, ‘What does “Green” Mean?: Anthropogenic Climate Change, Geoengineering, and International Environmental law’ (2009) 43 Ga. L. Rev. 901.

[9]Philip Rasch et al., ‘An Overview of Geo-Engineering of Climate using Stratospheric Sulphate Aerosols’ in Michael Thompson and Brian Launder (eds) Geo-Engineering Climate Change: Environmental Necessity or Pandora’s Box (Cambridge University Press 2010).

[10]ibid.

[11]Rasch et al (n 9).

[12]ibid.

[13]ibid.

[14]Davies (n 8).

[15]Rasch et al (n 9).

[16]Davies (n 8).

[17]Rasch et al (n 9).

[18]JE Bickel and L Lane, ‘Climate Engineering’ in B Lomborg (ed), Smart Solutions to Climate Change (2010).

[19]Sean Low, et al., ‘Geoengineering Policy and Governance Issues’ in Tim Lenton and Naomi Vaughan, Geoengineering Responses to Climate Change (Springer 2013) 179.

[20]Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (adopted 3-14 June 1992) A/CONF.151/26 (Vol. I), reproduced in 31 ILM 874 (1992) principle 2.

[21]Bodle (n 6).

[22]Reynolds (n 2).

[23]Low (n 24) 179.

[24]Bickle and Lane (n 20) 25.

[25]RA Pielke Jr, ‘Alternative Perspectives’ in B Lomborg (ed), Smart Solutions to Climate Change (2010) 60.

[26]Reynolds (n 2).

[27]Stephen Schneider., ‘Geo-Engineering: Could we or should we make it work?’ in Michael Thompson and Brian Launder (eds) Geo-Engineering Climate Change: Environmental Necessity or Pandora’s Box (Cambridge University Press 2010).

[28]ibid.

[29]BBC, ‘Hard Talk with David Keith about Geoengineering’ <https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mg2m> accessed 19 November 2018.

[30]Bickle and Lane (n 20).

[31]Hulme (n 1).

[32]ibid.

[33]Low (n 24) 179.

[34]ibid.

[35]ibid.

[36]United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (adopted 9 May 1992, entered into force 21 March 1994) UNTS 1771 (UNFCCC) art 3(1).

[37]Hulme (n 1).

[38]ibid 81.

[39]James Lovelock., ‘A Geophysiologist’s Thoughts on Geo-Engineering’ in Michael Thompson and Brian Launder (eds) Geo-Engineering Climate Change: Environmental Necessity or Pandora’s Box (Cambridge University Press 2010).

[40]Hulme (n 1) 118-119.

[41]Bodle (n 6).

[42]Reynolds (n 2).

[43]Hulme (n 1).

[44]ibid.

[45]Schneider (n 32) 21.

“Never has science around the world been so abundant to meet the challenges that we have”

Emmanuel Macron

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