The following is a response to David G. Victor’s article, “On the regulation of geoengineering” Oxford Review of Economic Policy, vol. 24, no. 2, pp 322-336.

Victor brings up an excellent point in that it only takes one (very rich) person, or one country, to geoengineer enough to affect the entire world. The drastic nature of geoengineering alone is enough to call for premature regulatory efforts. To investigate the science, he warns that an international panel, like the IPCC and Montreal Protocol are inneffective in this situation. The difference with geoengineering is that the science is not clearly understood (as in the hole in the ozone layer addressed in the Montreal Protocol); as Victor states the literature is so sparse, “it could be read over a long weekend”. In the case of the IPCC, there was a wide body of knowledge in need of synthesis. What he suggessts is multiple assessment institutions to analyze the science, technology and policy of geoengineering. These institutions would be stronger than the loosely knit IPCC, and allow greater authority along with an approach from multiple angles with all groups convening to compare assessments.

The complicated nature of geoengineering policy is that the science is so unpredictable and so high stakes. Climate change is as well, but emission regulations are not keeping up with targets (as seen in Kyoto Protocol progress), and many think a call for more drastic measures is needed.

But will those early efforts create a push for geoengineering before its time? Before it is developed and understood to the degree where it can be a safe decision? Victor seemed to believe that the wealthier, techier countries like the United States should be pushed faster into geoengineering since they will be at the forefront of whatever is carried out.

I have my own thoughts on what should be done, which will be saved for another post, but I’ll leave you with this excerpt as food for thought, a warning from Victor’s article:
“But once the process of geoengineering begins–whether unilateral or collective–it is likely the world will be unable to stop. For whatever the ills of global climate change, it is probably even more dangerous to let the climate experience the even more rapid warming that would follow the dismantling of geoengineering systems.”

The idea that anthropogenic emission of carbon into the atmosphere has reached a point where not only will it soon be harmful to people, but also that any actions taken by society to slow or stop the emission of carbon dioxide will be insufficient, has promoted the idea that drastic man-made efforts to reverse global warming should be considered as a solution. The options presented include simulating the cooling witnessed after volcanic eruptions through pumping the stratosphere with sulfate [1], carbon sequestration, ocean iron fertilization, giant mirrors that would reflect incident solar radiation and painting rooftops white.

The idea of sulfur injections was proposed by Paul Crutzen, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Although having a scientist who won the Nobel Prize in atmospheric chemistry adds credibility to this issue, it does not relinquish responsibility from policy makers to determine if geoengineering is the appropriate action. It is a drastic human-induced change to our environment with unknown consequences. Then again, so is global warming. What is a policy maker to do? While scientists come out with more articles and reports detailing the scope of global warming, public awareness and concern over global warming grows. It is shifting from a topic to debate into a time-sensitive issue requiring prompt action. The Kyoto Protocol has failed to meet the goals necessary to reduce emissions to the level climate scientists have set as needed to reverse the trend [1]. And although Americans view themselves as environmentalists, it is seen that we are unlikely to support legislation or change our actions to promote environmental sustainability [2]. Policy makers must take into account economic, societal, quality of life and other practical concerns in addition to the scientific concerns. The root challenge of the geoengineering policy issue is its unknown nature. The world has never been faced with such a problem, and the actual outcomes for any action taken (including no action) are unpredictable to an extent.

In future posts I will attempt to unravel the issues surrounding geoengineering and ascertain the role of the scientist towards the policy maker. I will also post news about geoengineering science and policy.

[1] Crutzen, Paul J. “Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma?” Climatic Change 77, 211, 2006.
[2] Jamieson, Dale “An American Paradox” Climatic Change 77, 97, 2006.

This blog will follow current policy and ponder future policy of the highly controversial geoengineering, which is the practice of “rearranging the Earth’s environment on a large scale to suit human needs and promote habitability” [New York Times, June 27th, 2006].  Through briefly recounting the science of geoengineering, I will present and analyze the policy surrounding it, including implications, options and considerations.