CIGI fellow Jason Blackstock has co-authored an article in the January 28 issue of Science (Vol. 327, page 527) on the potential uses of geoengineering techniques to help stabilize the changing climate. Blackstock, who is also a research scholar with the Risk and Vulnerability Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, co-authored the article with Jane Long of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US. Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale alteration of the climate system. Blackstock and Long argue that expanding national-level geoengineering research should be tempered until a broad international process is established that ensures that all countries, and particularly vulnerable developing countries, have a voice on if, and how, controversial aspects of such research can be safely conducted. The article focuses on one geoengineering approach — solar radiation management (SRM) — for which the authors argue that any field-testing that could have climatic impacts across national boundaries should first require a broad international dialogue.

According to the authors, the concerns about geoengineering relate to both scientific uncertainty and the political tensions over perceived “winners” and “losers” from the development and control of such technologies. Most importantly, if large-scale field-tests were conducted without international approval, it could spark international tensions over (real or perceived) transboundary impacts.

Blackstock and Long stress the need to establish international norms and best practices for geoengineering research, stating that national research programs and individual scientists must forswear climatic impacts testing and restrict subscale field-testing until approved by a legitimate international process. All SRM research should be in the public domain and be integrated into any subsequent international research framework. Programs should include international collaboration, communicate with developing nations, and prioritize research that has global versus national benefits.

The authors conclude that if “countries currently beginning SRM research voluntarily commit themselves to these principles, they can at least prevent new tensions from being heaped onto the already strained global climate agenda, and help preserve options for future international cooperation.” They further suggest that “SRM research is now expanding, and that expansion is needed to better understand what such technologies can and cannot do. SRM may be the only recourse in a climate emergency, and the last thing we want is rash unilateral SRM without clear scientific understanding of the implications. Such knowledge will also help guide the emergence of good international governance.”

The article warns that the potential consequences of a large SRM field-test are not well understood, and the environmental impacts are unlikely to be contained within the borders of a single country. As such, Blackstock argues that there must be some form of “internationally legitimate scientific standards for defining what constitutes negligible or acceptable risks for any SRM field-tests.” The article adds: “Questions of if, when, and where climate impacts testing should begin, or how SRM technologies should be managed, require a broadly accessible, transparent, and international political process. Importantly, vulnerable developing countries, who to date have been absent from SRM discussions must be involved, and all stakeholders need to consider whether existing frameworks can facilitate this process, or whether new treaties, organizations, and so on are required.”

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