The Global Conversation on Climate Engineering: Five Minutes with Dr. Simon Nicholson

Following a talk entitled, “Climate Engineering: Coming Soon to a Planet Near You?” the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Co-Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment Dr. Simon Nicholson to discuss the most recent developments in climate engineering research.

GJIA: What countries and private actors are leading the charge in climate engineering research, and what are the most popular strategies currently being considered?

SN: Current climate engineering research has been somewhat limited at the international level. Most of the research has been on the social science side; the United Kingdom, Germany, and a few other European countries have implemented substantial programs focusing on the ethics and governance of potential climate engineering projects. Similar governance- and ethics-based research programs have also begun in Japan, the United States, and Canada.

Most of the natural science research has been limited to computer modeling. One of the leading programs is called GeoMIP, or the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project, which is headed by Alan Robock of Rutgers University and Ben Kravitz of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. This project attempts to utilize computer simulations and models to predict what would happen with certain types of climate intervention. No one single country has been taking the lead on the physical science side yet, though some significant physical science research proposals are now emerging from scientists and laboratories in the United States, in particular.

There are two major “buckets” of climate engineering strategy under consideration: carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management. The technologies that fall into each of these buckets are to this point mostly highly speculative.

The leading proposal for carbon dioxide removal is bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (or “BECCS”). This strategy would, if implemented, involve growing plants, turning them into liquid fuel or burning them, and capturing the carbon that results from the combustion and putting that carbon underground. Although we can perform all of the individual steps of this process, it would be an extraordinary feat to do so at a large scale. In terms of solar radiation management, there are two leading proposals. The first is stratospheric aerosol injection, or the idea of introducing a reflective particle into the upper atmosphere to reflect incoming solar radiation, or sunlight, back into space before it can warm the atmospheric system. The second leading proposal is called marine cloud brightening, or artificially whitening clouds to make them brighter and therefore more reflective.

GJIA: How does the conversation on climate engineering differ between the academic and policy-making communities?

SN: The conversation on climate engineering has to date largely been within the academic community. The current discussion has been extraordinarily interesting and robust because there are natural scientists, social scientists, and ethics and governance experts all attending the same meetings and engaging in exchanges on technological developments within the field. These communities of people traditionally, around other issues, tend to be distinct and separate from one another. With climate engineering, however, there has been a lot of useful interplay between the communities working on the subject matter.

At the moment, though, there has not been much spillover into the policy arena, at least in the U.S. context. There is a lot of wariness surrounding even the discussion of climate engineering, for fear that it would distract from the larger climate change response agenda. Much of the focus of the current administration has been on the Paris climate meeting and the domestic energy transition away from fossil fuel dependence to renewable power generation. Policymakers either have not been paying any attention at all to growing academic chatter about climate engineering technologies or have been concerned that if they start talking about climate engineering, it would draw public attention away from what must remain the most important and foundational response to climate change: dramatically cutting the introduction of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

GJIA: What is the best way to gauge public reaction to the climate engineering conversation, and how can research groups promote greater transparency with regard to these conversations?

SN: One specific strategy that my group at American University, the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, has been exploring is public deliberative mechanisms, which are ways to directly engage the public in the conversation. There are a range of established methods that one could pursue in going about doing this. For example, one mechanism would be to establish citizen juries, or small working groups of people that engage with scientists and policymakers to wrestle with big questions. These citizen juries are comprised of regular people with no particular expertise in the climate engineering area, but might allow the academic community to better respond to popular concerns. Another avenue would be partnering with science museums, which often have educational arms that engage communities in these types of conversations, as well. Another mechanism that has been used in the past is World Wide Views, a multisite citizen consultation survey that engages thousands of people in different parts of the world at the same time. These surveys have already been done on the topics of both biodiversity and climate change, so it would be valuable to explore the possibility of conducting a similar one for climate engineering. This would, in a sense, take the pulse of the people and see how they might respond to different types of issues.

GJIA: What are the biggest risks, both environmentally and politically, associated with actually implementing climate engineering policies?

SN: The topic of risk assessment is a very complicated one. What tends to happen is that an academic or policymaker will look at a particular climate engineering technology and say, “Well clearly it is risky, there are things that would go wrong.” They then conclude that the plan should be written off as dangerous. I think a more nuanced way to consider the potential downsides of climate engineering policies is to look at the difference between the current trajectory for climate change and that possible with climate intervention. Either way, we are walking down two very risky paths. Climate change is out of control, but how do we then assess what would happen if some of these climate intervention techniques were actually introduced? That’s a more honest, though more difficult, starting place for risk evaluation and assessment in this area.

When the question of climate engineering is framed in that way, I tend to think about three different types of risk: material, political, and existential. In considering material risks, we ask, what might happen to the planet if climate intervention goes wrong? The material risk category accounts for potential anticipated and unanticipated side effects, such as changes in rainfall patterns and disruptions to the functioning of local ecosystems. In terms of political risk, the basic uncertainties are not only who gets to decide on specific intervention policies, but also who decides whether or not climate engineering is even a good idea? Whose hand is on the thermostat, and who gets to pull the plug if things go wrong? Furthermore, this involves knowing what mechanism needs to be put in place to emphasize the benefits and mitigate the consequences. Those are the kinds of challenges governments face in terms of political risk. Lastly, there is the category of existential risk, of what it means to be a person on the planet at this moment, what our relationship is to one another, and what our relationship as humans is to the rest of the planet. How might that be altered by climate engineering? Considering these relationships might privilege some forms of technocratic responses and neglect other actors in the climate engineering discussion. I think this framing issue is a big part of that conversation.

GJIA: Is there currently any international framework for establishing cooperative rules and regulations on climate engineering research, and if not, what kind of parameters should be put in place to foster both an inclusive dialogue and effective implementation of these policies, were they to be carried out?

SN: At the moment, there are limited formal mechanisms of governance for climate engineering research or possible implementation. A couple of existing international conventions on biodiversity and oceans have becomes sites for formal governance conversations. There have also been lots of proposals from the academic community that analyze whether existing mechanisms or regimes may be applicable to this specific topic.

At the moment, the international conversation on climate engineering governance is still in a relatively nascent stage. The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, in recognition of some of the research gaps that still exist, recently convened a working group of fifteen academics to look at international governance pathways for climate engineering. Each of the members of the group has, to this point, worked outside of the academic and policy conversations about climate engineering governance. All, though, are experts in some aspect of climate change and have expertise in international law, global governance, and environmental law. We are convening the group across a series of meetings to ask them to take a look at this field and put together some responses to big outstanding questions. This dialogue is going to be taking place over the coming year, and we expect that preliminary results from that discussion on potential courses of action will emerge early next year.

Dr. Simon Nicholson is the director of the Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service and an Assistant Professor of International Relations at American University. He is also the co-founder of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment.