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Nature Blog: Governing Geoengineering Print E-mail
Monday, 04 January 2010 21:02


Governing geoengineering

Olive Heffernan

StratoShield.jpgOne outcome of the failure of the Copenhagen summit is that geoengineering will likely gain more ground as a legitimate solution to climate change. Naturally enough, as efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions are postponed quick fixes to cool the climate – such as spraying sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere or artificially brightening clouds – become more attractive.

While controlling the climate was once the stuff of science fiction, in the past year scientists have started to turn focus more on geoengineering, realizing that it might be a much-needed last ditch attempt to curb the most serious impacts of rising temperatures.

Even commercial companies are starting to develop technologies for climate control. One such company, Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Washington, has filed for several patents for climate-altering technologies, among them a proposal known as StratoShield that would involve using a long hose suspended from balloons to waft sulphates into the atmosphere.

But while tests and trials are already underway, there are currently no laws in place to regulate geoengineering. Given the known, and possibly unknown, dangerous side effects of tinkering with the climate, there is an urgent need for global governance. Mason Inman explores this issue in detail in a feature ‘Planning for plan B’ in the latest issue of Nature Reports Climate Change [free access].

Says Maria Ivanova, director of Yale University’s Global Environmental Governance Project, “geoengineering is the most serious governance concern that we’re going to be facing in the next couple of decades. It’s really about planetary survival.”

Some argue that perhaps there should be a global ban on geoengineering, but thers are keen to see research proceed. After all, says Granger Morgan, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Climate Decision Making Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the world at some point may face tough decisions on whether to condone geoengineering, such as if a major state found that it couldn’t feed it’s people because of climate change. “If we haven’t done the research, the international community has to fall back on a moral argument, as opposed to a science-based argument,” says Morgan.

Mason Inman looks at how this research might be regulated and by whom in his feature. Right now, it’s a complex legal labyrinth involving the invocation of all kinds of existing laws from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to the 1978 Environmental Modification Convention, leading some to call for a global treaty (this was before Copenhagen, of course).

Over on the WSJ’s Environmental Capital, Keith Johnson says that all of the hubbub over geoengineering might just be enough to drive negotiators back around the table, to find some way to govern the geoengineering genie, if not lock it back in the bottle.

Image: David Fierstein/Intellectual Ventures