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Geoengineering: New Problems, Old Politics
Jamais Cascio   Mar 19, 2009   Open The Future  

I’ve been writing about geoengineering since 2005, and have even published a short book on the subject (Hacking the Earth), looking primarily at the ethics and politics of the issue. The political aspects are, in my view, the most important, yet they’ve received little attention.

Up until recently, my 2007 essay, The Politics of Geoengineering (and its follow-ups, Terraforming War and Global Climate and Global Power) offered the only detailed argument about the complexities and consequences of geoengineering efforts in a world of global rivalries. That’s now changed, with the publication of Stanford Law professor David Victor‘s “The Geoengineering Option” (PDF) in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Victor’s article is a detailed run-down of the various political drivers, dilemmas, and implications of geoengineering. His piece covers much of the same ground that I’ve written about, and little of it will be surprising to readers of my book; he even includes the possibility of hostile use of geoengineering technologies and the potential for non-state actors to get in on the fun, although he misses the liability issues surrounding implementation of geoengineering.

Unsurprisingly, his conclusions are similar to my own:

The scientific academies in the leading industrialized and emerging countries—which often control the purse strings for major research grants—must orchestrate a serious and transparent international research effort funded by their governments. Although some work is already under way, a more comprehensive understanding of geoengineering options and of risk-assessment procedures would make countries less trigger-happy and more inclined to consider deploying geoengineering systems in concert rather than on their own. (The International Council for Science, which has a long and successful history of coordinating scientific assessments of technical topics, could also lend a helping hand.) Eventually, a dedicated international entity overseen by the leading academies, provided with a large budget, and suffused with the norms of transparency and peer review will be necessary.
Abundant research, deep transparency, and global cooperation are the only ways to deal with geoengineering safely.

It’s heartening to see that the kinds of ideas I’ve been hammering on for a few years now are starting to trickle out into the mainstream. I doubt that Victor has seen my work on geoengineering; what’s happening is that the debates about geoengineering in the green blogosphere (where my stuff gets read) and the high-level debates in the academic punditocracy have started to converge. And because this is in Foreign Affairs, it’s likely to become a topic of discussion in Washington, DC.

One sign that this is underway is the announcement that DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—is hosting a colloquium on geoengineering at Stanford this week. Ken Caldeira will be there, of course, and I would be shocked if David Victor wasn’t also invited. DARPA is a weird agency that is ostensibly under the Pentagon, but has historically supported a number of projects without clear military applications. Still, the very fact that a Department of Defense agency is looking at geoengineering is raising hackles, even among attendees.

“The last thing we need is to have DARPA developing climate-intervention technology,” says Caldeira. He says he agreed to go to the meeting “to try to get DARPA not to develop geoengineering techniques. Geoengineering is already so fraught with social, geopolitical, economic, and ethical issues; why would we want to add military dimensions?”

Unfortunately, we don’t need to “add” military dimensions—they’ve been there from the beginning. A technology with the potential to alter critical aspects of the global environment, with differential effects across regions, and not dependent upon a massive industrial base (so even available to non-state actors)? As I said in 2007, only partially tongue-in-cheek, no state wants to find itself facing a “terraforming gap.” Wise or not, smart or not, geoengineering is a geopolitical issue, with all that entails.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.



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