Guidelines would allow for further research into, but not deployment of, geoengineering technologies.
Geoengineering, the use of human technologies to alter the Earth's climate system—such as injecting reflective particles into the upper atmosphere to scatter incoming sunlight back to space—has emerged as a potentially promising way to mitigate the impacts of climate change. But such efforts could present unforeseen new risks. That inherent tension, argue two professors from UCLA and Harvard, has thwarted both scientific advances and the development of an international framework for regulating and guiding geoengineering research. In an article published March 15 in the journal Science, Edward Parson of UCLA and David Keith of Harvard University outline how the current deadlock on governance of geoengineering research poses real threats to the sound management of climate risk. Their article advances concrete and actionable proposals for allowing further research — but not deployment — and for creating scientific and legal guidance, as well as addressing public concerns. "We're trying to avoid a policy train wreck," said Keith, a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. "Informed policy judgments in the future require research now into geoengineering methods' efficacy and risks. If research remains blocked, in some stark future situation, only untested approaches will be available." "Our proposals address the lack of international legal coordination that has contributed to the current deadlock," said Parson, a professor of law and faculty co-director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law. "Coordinated international governance of research will both provide the guidance and confidence to allow needed, low-risk research to proceed and address legitimate public concerns about irresponsible interventions or a thoughtless slide into deployment."
Keith and Parsons propose three concrete, near-term steps to advance research governance into geoengineering technologies:
- Consultation among research and regulatory agencies of governments interested in pursuing climate engineering research.
- A moratorium on climate interventions that could change the amount of sunlight reflected by the earth's atmosphere (or comparable climate thresholds) beyond a reasonable limit.
- A much smaller threshold below which field research may proceed, subject to normal criteria of scientific merit, compliance with all existing environment, health, and safety regulations, plus modest additional regulatory requirements to ensure transparency and discourage jurisdiction-shopping.