Sunshades for the earth?

The running joke about nuclear fusion is that it’s always 30 years away; in its absence, are the tricky decisions of slashing carbon emissions all we have to rely on? For some, our plan B might involve giant orbiting sunshades to block out solar radiation, or increasing cloud cover by shooting artillery shells filled with sulphur into the upper atmosphere, proposals collectively labelled geoengineering.

Computer artwork of a large mirror (circular) in Earth orbit with a spacecraft (lower left). The mirror is designed to shield the Earth (lower right) from the sun (behind mirror), in an attempt to control changes in the climate of the Earth. This proposed method is one of several that could be used to reduce the effects of human-made global warming. Many such mirrors would be needed. (Image: Victor Habbick Visions/SPL)

A fortnight ago, a group of MPs from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a short report on the Regulation of Geoengineering, which follows up previous broader interest from the committee on the subject . It makes for interesting reading, partly because it is a real-time glimpse of the process of how an idea is trying to gain political traction in a governance vaccuum when there are lots of different paths to go down.

It’s this question of regulation and governance that I think is the most vexing for most, not the actual science of it. In a nutshell: if we’re talking about an intervention that have an impact on our planet as a whole, who’s going to control it? There are lots of different solutions that each have their particular characteristics, and some of these are really quite benign and can be managed under existing international regulation and agreement (the carbon dioxide removal ones). But similarly, other proposals (solar radiation methods) do have more potential for causing major international kerfuffles.

The Commons report basically takes its lead from a set of five principles developed by a group of academics: geoengineering to be regulated as a public good, public participation in geoengineering decisionmaking, dislosure of geoengineering research, the independent assessment of impacts, and governance before deployment.

All this is well and good, and the group of MPs only have minor quibbles and clarifications for some of these. Three of these are basically about the process – public participation, research disclosure and independent assessment – and there’s not much that is all that different from criteria ideally applied to any other scientific application.

But there’s a lot of hopefulness around the first and last, and I wonder how useful they are. The wide distribution of impacts from climate change, and subsequent winners and losers is one key underlying factor stymieing meaningful agreement at the moment on mitigation and finance, which leads me to think that agreement on what ‘the public good’ is might prove to be similarly elusive. It’s the basic problem of whether climate impacts might be so dire for a particular part of the world, that a country decides that it needs to undertake a unilateral intervention.

And ‘governance before deployment’ sounds good in theory, but its at the edges and thresholds that it might be problematic. How much is enough, when it comes to rules and hoops to jump through to gain some degree of international legitimacy?  We’re so far away from any kind of plausible political process for this, so it’s not much of an issue at the moment – but it climate impacts start to get into a danger zone, it will take an awful lot of self-control for a government (or even a private corporation?) to say that we don’t have the proper process to govern this whole thing yet.

The wheels are turning, even if only slowly. Meanwhile, the Royal Society is getting into the game of governance too, launching a new study. There’s always a lot of ‘what ifs’ when we try and think about contemporary challenges and wishing we could go back to the beginning and do things differently, because choices made early on often leave their legacy on the realm of what is subsequently possible. Perhaps that’s the inevitable effect of hindsight. But at the time, we have to forge ahead anyway.

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One thought on “Sunshades for the earth?

  1. Rob says:

    Great stuff as always! The major problem with geoengineering seems to be that we really don’t know what result it will have. If we did, reaching international agreements on the subject would be a lot easier.

    But what do you think about geointervention in the ocean rather than in space? It seems to me that intervention there in cultivating new habitats for increased marine wildlife is a far more predictable way in which we can combat climate change. Though I have to say I don’t know a huge amount about the topic so I’m really looking to hear your thoughts.

    Rob (www.thebigqs.co.uk)

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