standard Governing geoengineering

Ash plume from the eruption of Mt Pinatubo. Spraying sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere would mimic the effects of volcanic ash plumes reflecting solar radiation back out to space.

Governing scientific and technological innovations is tricky business.  This is primarily due to the presence of uncertainty, the risks that society must face if it chooses to intervene using methods that could either have damaging consequences, fail entirely or both.  Everyone knows it’s a clique of course, but we really do ‘live in exciting times’ as humanity has at hand an array of advanced technologies at its disposal.  But climate change is in a sense antithesis to technological development or at least to how it has proceeded thus far, mostly because the world is locked into using fossil fuels as its primary source of energy.  Yet the controversial applications of geoengineering may prove a last resort for reducing the temperature of the planet preventing devastating environmental impacts induced by climate change.

Research into modifying the Earth’s climate and weather systems has been known for some time.  In the US, the question of engineering the Earth’s climate to counter the effects of climate change goes back at least to the Lyndon B Johnson administration in 1965.  Modifying the weather through technological means has been pursued through military operations at least in the US, China, Russia and Israel.  Yet the recent example of the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project in the UK, although seen as highly controversial from an environmental as well as scientific and political perspective, could be a model for how governments should proceed in evaluating new technologies for dealing with global environmental problems like climate change.  When it comes to ‘big science’, often little public consultation is given let alone allowed to become part of the process that oversees its implementation.

In Europe, there are examples of attempts to include public values in decisions about science and technology that have large implications for impacting society.  Some of these projects have been led by researchers part of IHRR at Durham University such as DEEPEN (nanotechnology), Synthetic Biology Dialogue and Strategic Science.

The SPICE project was first announced at the 2011 British Science Festival.  It was seen as a large step forward in the UK for developing means to deploy engineering methods to manage solar radiation.  In other words, find ways to deflect light from the sun back out into space preventing the Earth from heating up beyond dangerous levels any further due to the presence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane.  It would in a sense mimic natural phenomena such as sulphate aerosols emitted into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions or the same particles emitted by coal-fired power plants (although I realise these are not considered ‘natural’ see Air pollution, geoengineering and climate change).

Today, SPICE continues but the testing of equipment that could one day theoretically emit aerosols into the Earth’s stratosphere, engineering the climate(s) at a scale never before seen, was cancelled.  Interviewed by the Financial Times (Trial aims to hose down warming climate), Prof Hugh Hunt a member of the SPICE research team from Cambridge University, said if such a ‘full-scale global cooling system’ were implemented it would cost over £5 billion, take over two decades to develop and install, require 10-20 gigantic helium balloons the size of Wembley stadium attached to ships distributed around the world’s oceans that would pump 10 million tonnes of particles such as sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere.  Even though it’s possible to sum it up in a single paragraph, this possible solution appears far from simple, not only from a scientific or even philosophical perspective, but especially a governance perspective.

I spoke with Prof Phil Macnaghten who was part of a group of advisors who oversaw the ‘stage gate’ for the SPICE project.

The stage gate process for governing SPICE is to ensure that what is being done meets the criteria for engaging with public values and allowing actual dialogue to take place instead of solely for one-way campaigns for promoting the science and technology in question.

A stage gate is basically an idea that’s been borrowed from business; a stage gate is a procedure used in product development where you can stop the innovation process at particular moments, ask some fetching questions, and determine whether the process is able to proceed or not through the gates. So it’s a ‘stage gate’. So we adapted this business tool to the specificities of this particular research project, asking whether, and under what conditions, the proposed test bed, involving a balloon and pipe assembly, should be permitted to proceed. Although the trial did not involve geoengineering itself – it was set up to involve the spaying of water at a height of 1km, whereas the concept if used in deployment scenarios, would involve a 20 km balloon and pipe assembly spraying particulates continuously into the stratosphere – nevertheless it was arguably the 1st field trail on SRM geoengineering and thus merited special attention. During the stage gate review we made sure we asked some very testing questions. If these questions were answered to our satisfaction then the trial would have been able to proceed. As it happened some were and others were not.

While it has been said that the demise of this part of the project was due to disagreement over intellectual property rights it was actually much more than this.  Can you explain if this was the case?

The stage gate review panel met in June 2011 and deliberated at length on the quality of the responses given by the SPICE team to five criteria. At this stage the issue of the patent had not surfaced. Applying for patents is fairly commonplace within certain academic communities, including engineering, as a measure to ensure your ideas are protected. Following the stage gate review a number of measures were requested of the SPICE team, including the development of a ‘sticky questions’ briefing. At this briefing the issue of the patent surfaced. This had been taken out between one of the members of the project team and an external advisor. During SPICE’s internal deliberations it became apparent that the issue of the patent was seen differently by different members of the team. Within the geoengineering community there is an ongoing discussion as to whether geoengineering research should remain in the public domain and whether it should be regulated as a public good. Indeed, there is a very strong constituency that says that this should be so.

However, the issue of the patent wasn’t simply an issue on questions on openness and commercialisation. There was the additional issue of whether due process had taken place given that the patent had been taken out by a member of the SPICE team and one of the mentors of the funding ‘sandpit’ workshop that had funded SPICE. The possibility that there had been a ‘conflict of interest’ was an issue that the research councils took that very seriously; they instigated their own external review. Now, before this review had been completed, when the existence of the patent was announced to become public knowledge, the PI of the project decided to recommend that the balloon and tether work package citing the fact that the patent application represented a potentially significant conflict of interest.

Technological progress throughout history is usually never framed in a way that could include the possibility of something going wrong, by its nature it is the opposite of precautionary — it is about taking risks.  As technology becomes more complex so do its risks making governance, especially democratic governance, extremely difficult.  When technology says ‘GO’ governance usually says ‘WAIT’, ‘PROCEED WITH CAUTION’ or ‘STOP’ in this particular case.  Without these questioning procedures it wouldn’t be governance which isn’t simply about impeding technological progress, but examining it closely to understand what it is actually capable of in impacting the lives of present and future generations.  But how do you define ‘good’ governance?

It’s a process that enables you to make good decisions, to have thought through the impacts in advance of them having occurred and to have a process that is deliberative and that engages with relevant actors and of course to do all this in a way that feeds into the process of actually doing the science.

In cases of controversial scientific research such as SPICE it helps to look at it from multiple points of view.  While myself and others could be critical of the prospects of geoengineering now this could change in the near future because if a suitable technology were discovered that could in a sense ‘reverse climate change’ it could prevent future disasters and be highly desirable.  But even well-known researchers in the field of geoengineering respond with reluctance as to whether any of the methods developed to alter the planet’s warming would actually be applied (such as Ken Caldeira of the Dept of Global Ecology at Stanford University).  Topics like geoengineering remind us that science is often immersed in values and that good governance must wade through them.

This is an issue where science has never called the shots. It’s always been political. The whole reason why geoengineering might be thought of as a necessary thing we might do is precisely for social and political reasons. We think that formal negotiations might not work so we need a back-up plan. So I think that it’s completely implausible and untenable to imagine that this particular bit of science doesn’t have values attached, it does.  And the values and the questions and dilemmas surrounding it are extraordinarily difficult because if it’s correct that we’re in danger of run-away climate change and there is a very plausible argument that that might be the case, if then it’s plausible that current processes of negotiations international negotiations are simply not going to be able to be effective and we’re not going to be able to produce the cuts that are going to be required, and again that seems perfectly plausible then it could be seen as entirely responsible to think about alternatives including alternatives that can cool the planet down through solar radiation management.

So that’s a very honourable argument and you know for sure that is the argument the Royal Society in their 2009 publication. However, I think if you take that a few steps further you then begin to say well actually it gets fundamentally more difficult to think through the conditions under which geoengineering might be an option we all might be able to get behind. One problem is that we just won’t know what the effects are until we apply the technology in a planetary context, and then we’re only going to know after some time and then we’re not going to know whether the subsequent weather is affected by geoengineering or not. And what would that mean in terms of politics? How could you develop a set of political arrangements that can govern this dynamic.  Currently it is assumed that current political arrangements could govern SRM geoengineering. I question whether this is so.

It’s a planetary technology so almost by its very constitution it is undemocratic. How can nations or public at large influence a technology that requires such a high level of centralisation and control?  So that’s a huge question and I think we need to think about how we’re going to think about resolving those kinds of questions before we actually start about the mechanics of getting the stuff into the sky. So there is a very substantial set of political and ethical, moral arguments surrounding geoengineering and I think we’re at such an early stage I don’t think we’ve even imagined the complexity surrounding that. If let’s say you have a planetary technology and a nation or a set of nations who want to opt out, what do you do about that? If you find out the effects are going to be distributed unequally well how would that work in terms of liability, what new legal systems would be required? If we think at the moment that it’s difficult enough to govern nuclear proliferation or to develop a consensual politics around climate change is this going to make that easier? Probably not, probably a lot harder. So how can we imagine what kind of governance would we need to put into place for SRM geoengineering to be a viable proposition.


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