The politics of uncertainty

Green Futures, Forum for the Future

March 31, 2011

Governance is a word on everyone’s lips these days, and for good reason. Global governance is certainly not getting any easier, with destructive financial ripples, inscrutable oil prices, surging food costs, and unsettling national uprisings. These familiar concerns remind us that even long-established governance systems, with rich historic experience to draw from, are increasingly caught unprepared by the rapidly changing social, political and technological realities of our new century.

Now against this backdrop, try to design a new international regime that can head off dangerous human interference with the climate system without exacerbating the multitude of other looming calamities which are barely being managed already. With virtually no historic experience to draw upon, forecasts about how climate policies would actually impact those tender bits of our global society – such as jobs, energy supplies and food production – appear at best uncertain. And that’s before contesting predictions from differing political camps are washed into the mix. In this context, the continuing lack of a global climate deal, while no less disastrous for our planet’s future, is sadly somewhat understandable.

The sense of dismayed ‘inevitablism’ about climate change evoked by such thinking has been a key factor in bringing the notion of geoengineering into scientific and public prominence. Some hope this might make the climate challenge more manageable, both by limiting the downside risks and costs and – just maybe – by frightening societies into reducing their carbon emissions (because the prospect of having to geoengineer our global climate is quite scary)...!

But as with many well-intentioned notions, it raises more questions than it answers, including:

• Who will decide when and how much of which type of geoengineering is necessary? What happens when not everyone agrees?

• If societies do start to feel protected against climate risk, will that reduce the incentive for them to curb carbon emissions – an action which would address that risk in the first place?

• How would the climate and social changes brought about by geoengineering impact other key issues which societies are increasingly wrestling with?

These questions underpin the new governance challenge that comes with the emergence of geoengineering technologies.Part technology management, part climate

policy and part international affairs, it is spiced with all the same complex interdependencies alluded to above for climate change alone. And there is also the added complexity (at least for solar geoengineering) that fast unilateral action appears plausible and cheap for many nations, but could carry with it highly uncertain global climatic consequences.

Attempting to predict how the future will unfold is not a good basis for designing a governance framework: it can lead to myopic thinking about the variety of situations this might have to cope with. That said, thinking through a spectrum of quasi-plausible future scenarios can be a powerful way of getting to grips with the complex dynamics that a governance system may need to grapple with. Take, for example, the hypothetical scenario described in a news feature from 2031:

Emergency UN Session Convened StratoShield Fleet Continues Sulphur Injections

Even as an emergency session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) begins today in New  York, the 20 aircraft currently comprising the so-called ‘StratoShield Fleet’ are continuing their daily sorties into the upper atmosphere.

Around 100,000 tonnes of sulphate aerosols have now been dispersed during the Fleet’s first four months of operation. The UNSC session takes place against a background of growing consensus among experts that the technology is indeed working. The UN’s own specialist monitoring group concluded that the coalition of 23 countries actively managing the Fleet has demonstrated that it can fulfil its stated goal of “returning global radiative forcing to 2000 levels within three years”.

The coalition claims that achieving this goal will reduce global temperatures to averages similar to the ‘00s (in other words, around 0.7˚C cooler than those of the last five years). But critics point out this will only be achieved by dramatically increasing the dispersal rate of stratospheric aerosols, to between two and three million tonnes per year, and that the consequences of such cooling will not be all positive. After heated public exchanges between Chinese, Indian and Russian officials over the past month, observers fear that any notable increase in the dispersal rate could escalate tensions into an economic or even military stand-off.

The UNSC itself is divided. Seven of the 24 current members sponsor or support the Fleet’s activities, four oppose it, and the remainder are, for now, cautiously neutral. Officials from the European Union, which called for the session, say their main goal is to “promote agreement on the major issues at stake” amidst the stream of conflicting political and scientific statements flowing weekly from national governments, scientific bodies and NGOs.

Backed by supporters of the Fleet’s activities, including the 39 countries of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Brazil and China will open the session by recounting several widely publicised findings of the IPCC’s Seventh Assessment Report. They are expected to focus on the economic and social damages now being attributed to specific climate change impacts, particularly in the least developed countries. In particular, they will point to the fact that the number of registered climate refugees has now topped the two million mark. And they are sure to highlight the latest sea level index, which is now reading 18cm over the norm – largely due, experts say, to increasing losses from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

Strong opposition is expected from Russia and Canada, both heavy backers of the multinational Arctic Petroleum Consortium. Over the past eight years, the APC has invested upwards of $500 billion in developing the far north’s energy reserves. However, speculators have raised concerns that up to half of these investments might become unviable if the Fleet’s global cooling effect were to eventually cause a resurgence of Arctic sea ice. This speculation has already driven oil futures back over $300 per barrel.

It was partly concern over tightening global energy supply back in the mid-20s that prompted Canada, Russia, India and South Africa to walk out of talks on the Arctic cooling experiments proposed by the (now defunct) International Solar Geoengineering Research Collaborative. Today, India and South Africa are expected to align with the majority of Security Council members who fall publically into the ‘sceptical but undecided’ camp. These countries are broadly pressing for answers on how significantly reducing radiative forcing might impact various long-standing concerns, while acknowledging the negative impacts climate change is already having. Food and energy prices will be among the hottest topics. But other issues too are expected to surface in the discussions, from biodiversity loss toimmigration pressures, and the fate of climate-sensitive national infrastructure investments.

One wildcard at the Council will be the United States. Here, embattled President Gabriel Hernandez is still attempting to negotiate a compromise between the highly polarised energy and climate interests, currently fighting each other to a standstill in Congress and the courts. One senior administration official, venting anonymously, told us: “This domestic and geopolitical mess would have been a hell of a lot easier to manage if we’d started seriously curbing carbon emissions in the 2010s, rather than late last decade!

This scenario hardly depicts the sort of positive "green future" that we would hope for. In fact, those of us thinking carefully about how to govern geoengineering research and technology development rather hope that prudent forethought can help avoid similar situations. But it highlights important drivers – some of which are extremely difficult to predict and impossible to control – that will inevitably shape how, when and if geoengineering evolves from concept to reality.

The most obvious of these is the revolution of climate change itself. If climate impacts over the next two decades are mild, there is unlikely to be much pressure for active deployment of geoengineering. If, by contrast, we see increasingly extreme weather, along with rapid sea level rise, it will surely rise quickly up the political agenda. This will particularly be the case if we reach one or more ‘climate tipping points’. These are hard-to-predict  thresholds beyond which parts of the climate system undergo rapid non-linear change – such as melting permafrost releasing vast quantities of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.

We can expect such scenarios would have increasingly bad net consequences for global societies, but our understanding of exactly how and for whom they will be bad (and also who might benefit in the short term) remains sketchy. Even sketchier are guesses about how domestic populations and national governments 20 years hence would respond to the multitude of pressures such events could induce.

Nonetheless, whether and which countries develop the political will to launch a serious geoengineering effort will clearly be a core driver of how these technologies evolve. One suggestion, unsubtly laced throughout the above scenario, is that such political calculations are unlikely to be based purely on long-term altruism. Important and realistic near-term considerations, such as jobs, energy prices and the cost of food, seem likely to be as dominant in climate related decisions two decades from now as they are today. Any governance framework for deploying geoengineering needs to recognise this.

For both these important drivers – climate consequences and political landscapes – broad projections into the future are possible. But just how complex the reality of both (and their interactions) will be cannot be fully appreciated until we’re living right in the middle of it. A perfect reminder of how uncertain even the immediate future can be is the recent and unpredicted Tunisian revolution – sparked in part by protests over rising food prices – and the unprecedented political uprisings it ignited in Egypt and throughout the region.

So, accepting inevitable uncertainty where it exists, how can prudent forethought still help develop a governance system for geoengineering that may just safeguard us from undesirable futures, such as our 2031 scenario?

First, scientific research can provide considerable insight into what geoengineering technologies could and could not be useful for. Future political decisions about using geoengineering will be based largely on how useful it is seen in addressing whatever climate-derived threats are being felt at that time. Building robust, internationally accepted scientific knowledge about the potential benefits and risks of geoengineering technologies is therefore a critical step towards ensuring such perceptions are grounded in reality. This reduces the risk that misguided experiments with our global climate could be launched due to either naïve optimism or political opportunism winning over public opinion.

At the same time, how that research is conducted, and by whom, will be at last as important as the knowledge the research generates. We are just entering the early days of serious geoengineering research and technology development. If we can create frameworks for global transparency and inclusiveness now, it can lay foundations – normative and institutional – that could make it much harder for a subset of nations to launch geoengineering actions that disregard global welfare. In other words, whatever governance system (formal or informal) is established for geoengineering research in the next few years will set important precedents for how the future is governed.

In this context, building robust traditions of transparency and inclusiveness also means more than just international collaboration between scientists. The best foundation for future political cooperation on geoengineering is a broad and inclusive conversation that includes scientists, policymakers and publics around the world. Such a conversation would have two important goals.

First, to create a shared conception of what geoengineering is, what we know about it and, crucially, what we do not know, at any given time. This will help politicians and the public understand the risks and limits of geoengineering, and why geoengineering does not reduce our need to mitigate global carbon emissions.

Second, to help policymakers and scientists understand how the public connects the idea and potential realities of geoengineering to their daily lives. This is not meant as PR for geoengineering technologies. Quite the opposite: it is needed to ensure that the individual and cultural issues most important to our global societies are carefully woven into the governance framework for emerging geoengineering research.

Anticipating future challenges is difficult in any policy arena, and especially in one with technologies that are in the earliest days of their exploration and development. The approach outlined above can help us prepare as best we can. Playing through a range of possible future scenarios can also help us develop governance systems that are as robust as possible against undesirable outcomes.

But in the end, will such prudent forethought be enough to make the potential benefits of geoengineering outweigh the potential risks? Sadly, there are no guarantees. Geoengineering concepts and research do bring with them new risks, and this is certainly a thought that rests heavy in my mind when I write or speak about this topic.

However, the risks we already run with our global climate system are profound and increasing. Human societies and natural ecosystems alike could come under unprecedented threat from climate change this century, and thus far we have collectively failed to limit that threat. If geoengineering can potentially provide another recourse for future generations, then careful exploration of these ideas, with appropriate early governance, seems to me the best option, on balance. Of course, none of this changes the fact that limiting the threat of climate change through mitigation is still our best option to begin with!

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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