(Geo)Engineering A Different Future?

Human beings have caused climate change with potentially irreversible impacts. But can human beings retrieve the situation and engineer a better future by using technologies to reverse the processes associated with climate change? Put differently, can human beings geo-engineer a different and brighter future than that which will flow from our current limited and snail-paced attempts to address climate change?

In the recent period, geo-engineering has been heralded as a solution to climate change. Indeed, recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assume the success of geo-engineering techniques as integral to efforts to keep global warming below the Paris agreement’s target of 1.5/2°C. Geo-engineering involves techniques such as artificial particles being released into the atmosphere to mimic a volcanic eruption and selectively block out the sun, or causing phytoplankton in the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide.

But geo-engineering gives rise to acute ethical and legal issues. After all, geo-engineering solutions may affect every living being across planet Earth. For example, scientists acknowledge side effects such as changes to the hydrological cycle and ozone depletion. How do we deal with any associated socio-economic risks which emanate from those environmental changes? And what about the capacity of disadvantaged countries and communities to adapt to those changes?

Any country or company, sufficiently funded, will be able to make geo-engineering happen unilaterally. This raises an ethical concern - is it okay to inflict the risks associated with geo-engineering upon all humanity without a fair negotiation involving all stakeholders? And what about the rights of future generations to a safe and stable climate system? Geo engineering involves potentially irreversible impacts which will remove choices for future generations.  But we are in a cleft stick here: the longer time marches by without strong climate mitigation efforts, a failure to utilise geo-engineering techniques may also inflict harm on future generations.

The international legal regulation of geo-engineering is also deeply challenging. Currently existing global treaties relating to the environment only deal with geo-engineering in an ad hoc inadequate manner. Some have called for a new treaty specifically addressing geo-engineering. But this could take too long to negotiate and we simply don’t have a lot of time up our sleeve on this issue.  Tweaking existing environmental treaties such as the London Dumping Convention which regulates dumping of polluting substances at sea may be a better way to go. But there are no obvious solutions here.

What sounds like a wild idea straight out of science fiction might be on the verge of realisation. There is a need for debate and action on this matter. We can’t just leave this to scientists as it impacts everybody. We all need to get involved. But how?

Geo-engineering is one of the many climate justice problems which will be discussed at the conference Imagining a Different Future: overcoming barriers to climate justice. At this conference there will be an international panel of experts coordinated by University of Tasmania Law’s Faculty Jeff McGee, and including Catriona McKinnon (University of Reading, UK), Kerryn Brent (University of Tasmania), Michelle Bourban (Kiel University, Germany), Lisa Broussois (Independent researcher, Lausanne,) Aylin Tofighi (IMAS, University of Tasmania). The panel will take place on Friday 9 February 4 PM. Find out more at www.climatejustice.network (click on “Preliminary program”).


Sources and more links:

  • Kerryn Brent; Jeffrey McGee; Jan McDonald, ‘The Governance of Geoengineering: An Emerging Challenge for International and Domestic Legal Systems’

  • Catrionna McKinnon ‘Sleepwalking into lock-in? Avoiding wrongs to future people in the governance of solar radiation management research’

  • Stephen M. Gardiner, ‘Is “Arming the Future” with Geoengineering Really the Lesser Evil? Some Doubts about the Ethics of Intentionally Manipulating the Climate System’

  • David Keith: A surprising idea for "solving" climate change https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkEys3PeseA

Salman Shah is a 3rd year straight law student at the University of Tasmania and member of the Student Environmental Law Society.

Salman Shah is a 3rd year straight law student at the University of Tasmania and member of the Student Environmental Law Society.