Last week I attended a conference at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Organized by the German research council DFG academics from various disciplines gathered for three days at the Climate Engineering Research Symposium in the old but nicely refurbished building at the Gendarmenmarkt. The arches and pillars on the right side of the conference room still show the bullet holes from the last war. The hanging glass ceiling floats perfectly above the heads of the audience, with ever so tiny spaces between the panels, illuminated from above. This example of (low-tech) engineering and craftsmanship could be seen as a symbol of the floating fleet of aircraft deployed to inject particles into the stratosphere to cool the planet.
These two aspects are worth remembering when talking about climate engineering. On the one hand there is the issue of past events that affect us today (the bullets from the past), and our decisions that will affect those that come after us. On the other hand there is the effort by engineers to devise solutions for problematic things inherited from the past, such as a war torn building or the global climate. But clearly it took more than engineers to restore the building in Berlin Mitte.
My observations are highly impressionistic and not meant to be an account of the proceedings, so if you expect a comprehensive and accurate rendering of positions from specific persons click away now.
Climate engineering (CE) is still a somewhat obscure and elite discourse, mainly conducted in the Western world. As one presentation illustrated, the concept has been discussed for over two decades in the scientific community and in science policy circles, leading to the publication of several hundred papers and documents. The public discourse on the topic pales in comparison. The Lexis-Nexis newspaper database lists just 134 newspaper articles containing the term ‘climate engineering’ from 1995 until today in the English-speaking world.
The DFG symposium was interesting in that scholars from a range of disciplines and countries presented their ideas, exposing the different epistemic cultures. There was no attempt made by the organizers to prove a meta-narrative, or even to contextualize the various different contributions. Several contributions from the physical sciences did not even attempt to summarize their main points to an audience which is at some distance to the technical jargon.
The CE experts gathered at the symposium seems to follow the broader scientific climate change discourse in that a lot of energy is spent on modeling efforts. This is of course the stomping ground of atmospheric scientists and economists, with psychologists adding quantitative studies about personal perceptions and behavior. But there were also philosophers and legal experts present, even qualitative social science and STS perspectives.
The sequence of talks followed the script familiar to us from climate change discourse: first come the physical sciences, then the social, political and moral questions. Listening to the modeling results from atmospheric scientists my impression was that the physical effects of various CE techniques are far beyond our understanding and control.
A common thread in the modeling contributions is a reductionism and determinism (that is conceded, even at times happily acknowledged by the authors). Often a tight causal relationships is assumed, such as the link between research into CE and its actual deployment. Depending on where you stand, you are either in favour of ‘doing’ CE, or in opposition. In economists’ parlance, it is not clear if CE is (or leads to) a ‘public good’ or to a ‘public bad’. There were no passionate calls for stopping CE research in its tracks.
Most presentations used the concepts of CE and Solar Radiation Management (SRM) interchangeably. SRM is only one of many CE applications and the problems associated with each are different. SRM is an emerging technology that aims at injecting particles into the stratosphere. This would mimic the effect of large volcano eruptions which are known to have cooled the Earth in the past. If another CE technique were available at scale without negative side effects, such as carbon dioxide removal, we would probably have a very different kind of debate.
While CE is interdisciplinary the main core of research happens in the physical sciences, as Jack Stilgoe nicely illustrated, making use of a scientometric network analysis. Some social sciences are visible as well, mainly from economics, law, psychology and international relations. Surprisingly, engineering is absent from this research field called Climate Engineering. Jack made a distinction between CE as a noun and as gerund, showing potentially new insights if we take climate engineering as a process and activity.
The problem of uncertainty was raised by several speakers across the disciplines, from atmospheric science to philosophy. As Johannes Lenhard pointed out scientists tend to equate uncertainty with variations of empirical estimates (as in error bars of measurements or model projections) whereas some social scientists make a distinction between cases where we know the probabilities of something to happen and cases where we do not. Only the latter is a case of real uncertainty, according to the economist Frank Knight. Lenhard argued that scientists and economists often make uncertainty disappear by taking take mean values from different studies, excluding the full range of possibilities. They transform uncertainty into risk, which is a fallacy.
It was refreshing to see some heterodox approaches, too. Talking about uncertainties, someone stated that we do not seem to understand the climate system very well, as evidenced by the failure of climate models to account for the recent temperature record (he would have been lambasted in a more conventional climate change meeting). If anything, CE will exacerbate uncertainty. Another presenter mentioned that several countries would prefer a temperature rise of more than 1.5°C compared to 2006 as this would benefit their agriculture (pure heresy for the mainstream). One presentation advocated the use of cultural cognition for the analysis of people’s reactions to information about CE, another the use of human rights as a legal instrument to govern CE applications. The argument is that one form of harm (past CO2 emissions) cannot be corrected by another form of harm (CE).
Ethical issues were raised throughout, such as the problem of intergenerational justice. But CE is a problem of intra-generational justice as well, as the only speaker present from an African country remarked. This is intertwined with the causal models mentioned above: who will benefit from CE’s applications? Which side effects will it have? What legitimation exists for its deployment? As one speaker rightly said, CE applications would need a social license to operate. How could this legitimation be provided on a global scale? It seems as if the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change does not provide an obvious or robust basis in international law (Art 2 talks about ‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’--not about the reduction of solar irradiation). If UN frameworks do not exist this may lead to problems of unilateral or mini-lateral initiatives of CE, which again, will be seen by some as good and by others as bad.
Other ethical issues were mentioned, such as the slippery slope argument or moral hazard. The moral hazard problem arises if CE solutions become scalable, safe, and cheap as there would be little reason to invest in mitigation policies. But this would be analogous to many classical pollution problems where the solution to the problem was to use an end of pipe device without radically altering the polluting technology. We seem to be well equipped in the logic of this kind of moral hazard that it does not pose a fundamental problem.
However, no one mentioned an obvious challenge to international climate policy and ethics. If CE becomes scalable, safe and cheap, what would be the target temperature of the global thermostat? And if we could agree on a number, what would be the legitimate way to arrive at binding decisions about it?
In sum, CE is still in the pre-problem stage of public attention. It is an issue that could make its transition into the stage of alarmed discovery. For this to happen several problems need solving simultaneously which are currently entangled within the CE expert communities: the question if CE would be effective and controllable, beneficial to all stakeholders, safe, and ethical to use with regard to future generations.
The bullet holes on the pillars in the Academy pose the question to us contemporaries if the violence could have prevented and what we make of the war, looking back at history. No matter which lesson we take from it, it seems a complicated story, with technology, ethics and politics interacting.
One lesson that has been drawn is to build strong international institutions to prevent an escalation of conflicts. Europe drew the lesson of unification after the Second World War, a project that was characterized by good intentions but executed in a technocratic manner. The good intentions eventually led to unintended consequences that plague the union today. Democratic participation has been a problem although the ‘social license’ to operate was not called into question on a broader basis until recently. Even in the current crisis the EU’s ‘natural’ modus operandi is technocratic and elitist.
Governance structures have been proposed for CE, too. There is disagreement where they should start; should CE research be controlled and restricted, or should we wait with regulations until specific projects are ready to be deployed? The answer to that question will depend very much on the nature and trajectory of the CE community. If it envisages a technocratic path, which will lead to CE applications by a club of countries (‘coalition of the willing’) then a semi secret environment, much like military applications would be logical. If, on the other hand, public debates unfold about the problems of climate policy, including options for CE, the legitimation of specific avenues of scientific and technical applications would be challenged from the start. My sympathies are clearly with the latter approach. A precondition for this would be that CE debates extend beyond expert communities to become visible in public discourse.