Techno-fixes for climate change? Not so fast...

June 11, 2010

You walk into your office, find it unbearably hot, and jack up the AC. Your office mates may complain when they have to dig out their cardigans in July, but the act itself is easily reversed with the flip of a switch and, at worst, you've only annoyed a few people.

Picture, however, this scenario on a grand scale (i.e., worldwide). That's geoengineering or, as geoengineers like to call it, climate intervention. Whatever we call it, the goal is the same—to develop new technologies that provide a quick fix, combating the effects of rocketing CO2 emissions.

One strategy for accomplishing this—the one favored by most environmentalists—is to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But climate intervention advocates worry that this strategy is "too little, too late," that it won't work quickly enough to fix the problems associated with climate change. Their solution? Dial down the heat with a variety of technological fixes that range from dumping iron into the oceans to fertilize carbon-sequestering algae, to shooting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect solar radiation.

The consequences of getting it wrong in the field of geoengineering, though, are monumental. And, like the infamous Butterfly Effect, they're nearly impossible to predict.

How many will be affected if the temperature in a region drops too quickly, if rainfall patterns change dramatically, if ocean currents shift, or if photosynthesis is hindered? Even with the best laid plans, some of the solutions proposed by geoengineers are likely to produce negative, unintended consequences.

Shobita Parthasarathy, assistant professor of public policy at the Ford School and co-director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the University of Michigan, is, like many others, duly concerned about moving forward with large-scale geoengineering experiments. That's why this March, Parthasarathy attended an international conference on climate intervention in Asilomar, Calif. The conference, patterned after the widely lauded 1975 Asilomar conference during which genetic scientists developed a self-regulation strategy for their research, was focused on developing guidelines to govern geoengineering experimentation.

Conference attendees included aerospace engineers, international law experts, atmospheric scientists, government accountability specialists, meteorologists, anthropologists, marine biologists, and—perhaps not too surprisingly—a number of venture capitalists who hold patents on geoengineering technologies.

Parthasarathy was one of a handful of social scientists and ethicists at the table. She was also one of a handful of people of color. That lack of diversity, she acknowledges, is a problem. "When you have physicists and engineers designing ocean iron fertilization experiments, it's going to look very different than if you have ecologists involved in the process, or social scientists, or members of the populations that are going to be affected." There's a lot of concern, she says, "about who controls the switch in geoengineering. Who decides whether to deploy it, how to deploy it, and whether and when to stop it."

At the conference, Parthasarathy spoke about anticipatory governance, sharing a technology assessment approach she developed to help innovators anticipate, at an early stage, the implications of their research—ethical, social, environmental, and health—so they can maximize benefits while minimizing both risks and controversy.

After her talk, Parthasarathy was approached by Ana Ivelisse Aviles, senior general engineer at the Government Accountability Office, to contribute to a GAO-led technology assessment of geoengineering. Parthasarathy was busy with other work—she's writing her second book and submitting proposals for other research initiatives—but she felt obligated to weigh in on the topic.

"I kept thinking, I have a moral responsibility to tell everyone I meet about geoengineering, because not enough people know about it and some people are starting to see it as a solution to climate change." The better way to think about it, she says, "is trading one set of problems for another set of problems. And, really, trading one set of problems that we kind of know about, for another set of problems that we don't know a lot about."

So Parthasarathy gathered up ten of her best students—in diverse fields like public policy, atmospheric sciences, applied physics, chemistry, information technology, and public health—to develop three case studies for the GAO assessment. Each of these projects would use historical cases to provide a framework for thinking about the governance of geoengineering research. With Parthasarathy's guidance, those students wrote up:


  • a review of the patent landscape for geoengineering, including how many applications are granted and pending, who owns them, what they cover, how those application rates have changed over the years, what this foretells about who will control the geoengineering "switch", and whether an alternative form of patent governance—like the one used for atomic energy—might be more beneficial for the public good;
  • a review of the laws governing field experimentation of ocean iron fertilization technologies, looking at how these experiments would be regulated under the current legal frameworks of the National Environmental Protection Act and the Ocean Dumping Act, as well as how these acts might be amended to better manage the unique risks posed by geoengineering experimentation; and
  • a review of the governance strategies proposed for testing the deployment of particulate matter over the arctic ice sheet, including top-down governance models, consent models, and deliberative democracy models that have been used in the past to govern technically complex issues in developing nations.

Parthasarathy's students presented their findings to Aviles, who subsequently asked them to put together formal memos that she can circulate more broadly.

"I'm not ready to say absolutely no geoengineering, ever, of any kind. But I do think that we—especially Americans—have never met a technological solution that we didn't like," says Parthasarathy. "Technologies break. They don't work all the time. Or they don't always have the impacts that we think they will. If we don't know that now, then we'll never be able to learn that lesson."

Biotechnology, says Parthasarathy, could have catastrophic effects in the long term. Climate change could have catastrophic effects in the medium term. But geoengineering could have catastrophic effects immediately. "At the very least, for as much time scientists spend thinking about geoengineering, they should spend an equal amount of time thinking about what they'd do if it wasn't on the table."