Illustration of solar radiation management technique from the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project.

When it comes to controversial scientific research many scientists can be dismissive or evasive when it comes to dealing with the public. But when it comes to looking at the bigger picture of how the research could interface with policy and in turn governance, it is actually non-scientists that may hold some of the answers, and not necessarily those in high positions of political or financial power either. Public dialogues about geoengineering seem like a model example of this, showing that engaging with non-scientists can lead to productive assessments of the actual risks involved and judging whether or not the science or technology is even appropriate at all. Now this may seem problematic to some, but it could actually bring science, technology and democracy a little closer together.

The problem of granting patents for geoengineering technology was what prevented the project SPICE from continuing research beyond computer modelling, ending an experimental trial that could have one day led to engineering the Earth’s climate at a scale never before seen. Prof Phil Macnaghten at Durham University, who was an advisor on the SPICE project, oversaw the stage gate process for the project, which was in place to ensure that it met the criteria for engaging with public values. Some puzzling questions arose during the stage gate panel. If geoengineering did become mainstream and worked who would own it?  Would it stay in the public domain or fall under intellectual property laws and therefore be subject to commercial interests?

A study out last week on the Experiment Earth? public dialogue project published in Nature Climate Change found that many participants had some insights to share about using geoengineering to combat climate change, although they were not experts in the field. For example, in the study authors said, ‘Many participants felt that there was an imperative to develop some form of international governance structure capable of seeking consensus for developing and deploying the technology, as well as determining codes of conduct for their responsible use’.

Participants in the Experiment Earth? series of public dialogues also questioned whether or not spraying reflective particles into the stratosphere could ever be agreed on universally as there is often little agreement between countries in terms of dealing with climate change now. There are also potentially unforeseen and unintended impacts of using geoengineering (in this case solar radiation management) to control the Earth’s temperature, including extreme changes in precipitation and more recently according to a study from the Met Office, it could bring ‘unwanted consequences’ to the developing world such as parts of Africa. If this is the case is it acceptable to place further risk on the societies that are currently experiencing the harshest conditions because of climate change?

While SPICE did not proceed with experimental trials, according to the study, testing geoengineering techniques, as long as they abided by clear ethical guidelines such as safety for people living nearby and the environment, were not rejected by participants, but the actual act of solar radiation management was met with discomfort. Geoengineering is viewed as a potentially useful tool in reducing the impacts of climate change, but without further investigation remains simply that and nothing more. What is compelling about public engagement, at least in the most optimistic light, is that it can lead to new forms of global governance when it comes to science and technology, particularly scientific innovation. The idea here is better governance informed through public input, encouraging increased transparency. If done well, it has the potential to not only increase public awareness of science itself, but get governments to make more intelligent decisions when it comes to science and technology policy.

References and Further Reading

Deliberating stratospheric aerosols for climate geoengineering and the SPICE project. Nature Climate Change

Governing geoengineering. IHRR Blog

Study finds mixed views on use of aerosols to limit climate change. NERC

Geoengineering balloon trial cancelled. physicsworld.com

Environmental science: Good governance for geoengineering. Nature